Reunited, and it sounds so good

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth flashed his famous toothy grin, draped his arm around lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen and posed a question to the sellout crowd at Verizon Center.

"Are you having a good time?" Roth asked with over-the-top enthusiasm about 25 minutes into Thursday night's concert.

For fans who had waited 23 years to see Van Halen and Roth touring together, the response was nothing short of euphoria. They had been standing, cheering, singing along and playing air guitar since the moment the band hit the stage.

But that was no surprise. The real story was that the group seemed to be having a good time playing together -- no small feat considering the band's tumultuous history.

After Roth left Van Halen in 1985, he and his former bandmates spent the better part of two decades publicly sniping at each other. On Thursday, however, sniping had been replaced by smiling -- not to mention hugging and high-fiving.

And the rock elders of the group -- Roth, Eddie Van Halen and drummer Alex Van Halen -- were joined in the apparent joy by the baby-faced, fresh-from-study-hall addition of 16-year-old Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie's son, on bass.

No observer knows for certain whether the camaraderie is sincere or just part of the show, but there is no denying that Van Halen still delivers the goods as an arena rock act. In fact, the band sounded tighter than it did during its hard-partying heyday.

Right from the opening riff of "You Really Got Me," Van Halen grabbed the audience by the jugular and never let it catch its breath. With Eddie Van Halen's guitar wizardry and a hard-charging rhythm section, the band played for two hours and 10 minutes, ripping through an old-school-only set that undoubtedly took the throng of 30- and 40-somethings in the crowd back to the good old days of their preteen and teen years.

Highlights from the set, which omitted material from the Sammy Hagar era, included "Runnin' With the Devil," "Beautiful Girls," "Everybody Wants Some," "Unchained," "Hot for Teacher," "Panama," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" and "Jump."

Roth, Eddie and Alex Van Halen -- who range in age from 52 to 54 -- played with the energy and verve of much younger men, while commanding the stage like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members that they are.

A shirtless Eddie Van Halen, wearing green camouflage pants and red sneakers and displaying a svelte, cut physique, reminded everyone why he is regarded as one of rock's most influential guitar players. His 12-minute solo near the end of the set mixed soft, precise tones with sudden bursts of power chords before climaxing in a sea of ultra-fast playing and piercing high notes.

As for Wolfgang Van Halen, who has replaced original bassist Michael Anthony (Roth described the band as "three-quarters original, one-quarter inevitable"), his playing and background vocals were fine, but his stage presence wasn't quite there.

If there's one thing that Roth doesn't lack -- besides humility, that is -- it's stage presence. While "Diamond Dave's" face has matured and his blond mane has been tamed and neatly trimmed, the man who set the standard for charismatic frontmen in the late '70s and '80s did nothing Thursday to tarnish his legacy.

Roth, who a year ago was playing Rams Head Live, was clearly savoring every second back on the big stage, at times appearing almost as if he was trying to inhale the adulation from the crowd.

Wearing tight, black leather pants and unbuttoned shirts that revealed toned abs, Roth strutted, delivered his signature spin kicks, twirled the microphone stand and even did some nifty tricks with a top hat -- one of which is inappropriate to mention in a family newspaper.

As a vocalist, Roth will never be confused with Robert Plant, but he sang with aplomb. He occasionally talked the lyrics rather than sang them, and his voice cracked a couple of times -- most noticeably on the final note of "Little Dreamer" -- but the crowd was forgiving.

Perhaps Roth's finest moment was when he took the stage alone, strapped on a guitar and performed the acoustic part of "Ice Cream Man."

It's the undeniable chemistry between Roth and Eddie Van Halen, however, that had the band's fan base pining for this reunion, and that chemistry was never more apparent than when Eddie playfully mimicked Roth's vocals with his guitar several times during the show.

Indeed, the lasting image of the night was of the two iconic rock figures standing side by side on the stage after all these years, sporting open-mouthed grins.

It was a sight that put smiles on about 15,000 others faces, as well.

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