'Put the spotlight on him, and leave the spotlight on him," was the stage direction from David Lee Roth. The man called Diamond Dave was your evening's ringleader and glittering waddling dandy, and though he is not known as a sharer, his instructions were as they should have been: Shine it all on Eddie Van Halen, at age 57 still a wunderkind electric guitarist.
Girl Gone Bad, a deep cut from the album (and year) 1984 served as a lively workout for the virtuoso. We caught it all: the fretboard tapping, some dive-bombing and a wild riff or two.
Then the music segued into the good-time bump-and-grind of Beautiful Girls, and it was so clear that Van Halen, the undeniable California rock gods that first went ballistic in the late 1970s, was (and is) something much more than its invention and bombast. AC/DC told us that "girls got rhythm," but Van Halen had it too, on the covers of Roy Orbison's Oh, Pretty Woman and the Kinks' You Really Got Me, and on Panama too – all on the ACC set-list. Those hip-cocking beats and lubricated rhythms attracted a female audience to a guitar band like never before – lady fans still with them, judging by the St. Patrick's Day turnout.
The line about not having a care in the world, and that all "I need is a beautiful girl" is the clincher. Other bands might have expressed that wish for a "woom-mahnn" as a bluesy or mopey sigh. For Van Halen though, the dame was a given – a wink or a finger-snap away from happening. This was swagger, this was lechery. Everybody still wants some; now how 'bout you?
A well-amplified 1-hour-and-50-minute show found today's Van Halen as fast, furious and in fighting trim. A reunion tour in 2007 and '08 with Roth and the Van Halens – Eddie, drummer Alex and the then teenage bassist Wolfgang (son of Eddie and the actress Valerie Bertinelli) – was victorious enough, but it seemed to be a first salvo toward something more significant. Now they are touring with the firebrand material of a new album ( A Different Kind of Truth, represented by four cuts at ACC) and a leaner, more settled stage presence.
Van Halen hit the ground running, beginning with Alex beating out the opening of Unchained, the muscular, roller-coasting biggie from 1981. Father and son next quickly appeared, followed by Roth, a grinning off-key shouter in exotically-leathered trousers and kerchief, pinstriped vest and shiny shirt. He gave us a high kick, but just for old time's sake. Later, on the jubilant Dance the Night Away, his 360-degree-twirl was closer to a two-forty.
In compensation for Roth's unsteady vocals perhaps, Van Halen's countervocals are foreground: The full, pristine sounds from the microphone stands of Eddie and Wolfgang were suspiciously good.
Overlooking the wide-open stage was a jumbo screen that showed the band in gigantic black-in-white proportion. On the blues-on-fire of The Full Bug, Roth was clearly seen shrugging his shoulders to the song's inclusion on the set list: "Don't ask me," he said, "It's name that tune for me."
Hits came soon enough, none better received than the lewd uproar of Hot For Teacher and the synth-driven night-closing exciter Jump.
Eddie's extended solo (which included elements of his wheel-reinventing exercise Eruption) used pinch harmonics, Hendrixian whammy-barring, noisy feedback, volume-control manipulation and classical-violin opulence, all performed while relaxing on the steps to his brother's drum kit.
For me, it wasn't his technical brilliance that floored. Playing the simple boogie riff of Oh, Pretty Woman and elsewhere, the superstar guitarist would smile, almost sheepishly – an expression of pure fortune that he could do something that came so easily to him for sums of outrageous money, status, and, yeah, beautiful girls.
Earlier, Kool & the Gang, those Jungle Boogie-ing seventies survivors rediscovered by Roth at last year's Glastonbury Festival, finished off their uplifting opening set with Celebration. There was indeed a party going on right here, "a dedication to last throughout the years." Van Halen, in 2012, shine on.
- At Air Canada Centre
- In Toronto on Saturday
Van Halen plays Ottawa's Scotiabank Place, March 21.
Editor's note: The concert was 1 hour and 50 minutes long. This length of the show has been corrected in this version.