Shortly after Van Halen took the stage for a private show at a rehearsal space in Hollywood Wednesday night, David Lee Roth explained what the purpose of the secret show was. "We've been dusting off the furniture for a couple weeks here," he announced, "and now we're gonna dust off the barbecue."
The 250 or so assembled media and record-label types considered themselves properly torched as Roth and the Van Halen family threw lighter fluid on the figurative fire for the next hour. With the band's first Roth-fronted album in 28 years coming out next Tuesday, and a summer tour having just gone on sale, Van Halen is counting on the gatekeepers to pass immediate word along to the masses that they've still got it. Consider the message delivered, then: No vintage-era fan will feel unrocked, and no hairs will go unsinged.
Roth told the crowd that under the original plan, there was "supposed to be a press conference Tuesday morning at 11," but it "got moved to Wednesday at 8 so we could all drink." Somehow, the press conference idea got lost in the time shift… although Roth, ever the king of hard-rock bon mots, did end up answering plenty of unasked questions during the performance.
Like: "Would it kill you if I told you that 'Panama" was just a stripper from Albuquerque?" (Those of us who'd assumed the song was a sober recounting of the canal treaty of '77 were very, very disappointed.)
The affair took place on a soundstage on the former A&M Records lot, which got shut down when the label was dismantled in 1998 and eventually got sold to Henson Productions. It had a more storied past well before all that, though, as the studio Charlie Chaplin built. A student of history, Roth was not about to let this solemn lineage go unremarked upon.
"We're making some noise here in the temple of silent film," Roth declared. "Most people don't know Charlie Chaplin was a major Van Halen fan. He inspired 'Hot for Teacher'… Chaplin was 35 when he married a 16-year-old. I think there's a lesson to learn here."
Of course, then-dirty-old-man Chaplin was a spring chicken compared to the boys in Van Halen (well, except for newish bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie's son and Michael Anthony's replacement, who still has the incongruous look of a student contest winner). How well are Lothario-nism and leather pants wearing on guys in their 50s?
Very well, thank you, to address another unasked question from the press conference that wasn't. Anyone who saw the first Roth/VH reunion tour in 2007-08 probably already knows that, even if Eddie's issues brought that run to a premature halt. Many more eyes will probably be trained upon the band this time around, thanks to an actual album being involved, so if you're wondering how rusty they've gotten, take heart: Roth's squeals have not turned to squeaks, he can still do a pretty high kick or three, and the skin-tight duds bely not the slightest trace of a gut. Eddie still has teeth and chops. Alex still looks like he should have been a supporting character on "The Sopranos," but then, he looked that way when he was 19. And he could still beat the life out of a stool pigeon with those sticks.
Wednesday's 13-song set list offered an abbreviated version of the show they'll soon be doing in arenas (i.e., most of the hits, but "Eruption," VIPs will still have to go to the big show and pay for). "You Really Got Me," "Runnin' With the Devil," "Unchained," "Everybody Wants Some," and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" all sounded as riff-eriffic as ever. The new album, "A Different Kind of Truth," generated three songs that fit in perfectly with the oldies — the single "Tattoo," and two premieres that fell more into the hyper-blues-boogie camp, "She's the Woman" and "The Trouble With Never."
Virtually all the staging you could imagine for an arena was packed into the soundstage's tight quarters, including not just a U-shaped stage that enveloped the small audience but three huge LED screens that also wrapped around the crowd (and threatened to induce fits even among the non-epilectic). Roth did take pains to point out that a key strobe effect was missing in the middle of one song, though.
"When we get to that part, I want you to blink really fast," he said. "A lot of you are on prescription meds tonight… You're already doing this."
At one point in the middle of a number, Roth seemed to be going into a Jim Morrison-like mystical reverie. "What's that in the road ahead?" he kept repeating, gazing over the audience's heads. Finally, the not-so-lizardy king explained that this was a "paramedic joke," presumably from the years when he mystified fans by actually training to be an EMT. "What's that in the road… a head?" He added one more for good measure. "Mr. Rodriguez, how many of your fingers am I holding up?"
For the finale, "Jump," a drum corps and a gaggle of Vegas-style showgirls came out to pound skins and shake their skins. For any other band, it might've been the shark getting jumped, but with Roth on board, no tongue-in-cheek glitz comes close to stretching the limits of excess.
Somehow, we suspect the drummers and girls were Dave's idea and not, say, Wolfie's. But at least Eddie, the silent partner, was laughing gregariously at a lot of Roth's antics, which bodes well for this reunion enduring indefinitely. Gary Cherone, you can stop sitting by your phone.