If you asked me to pick out the three most memorable moments from Van Halen’s concert Friday night at PNC Music Pavilion, I’d go with these:
1. The opening 30 seconds. Lead singer David Lee Roth emerged looking like a life-sized Liberace bobblehead doll – his head wobbling, his mouth agape in a clownish grin, his body clad in a bedazzled purple-and-black shirt, black bellbottoms, slippers, and a long black scarf that he waved around like a matador. One look and you just knew he was still crazy after all these years.
2. Roth’s rambling monologue, late in the evening. Before launching into an acoustic cover of John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man,” he spent six or seven minutes spinning a tale that started with a hike he took on Crowder’s Mountain “probably 25 summers ago”; continued in Tokyo, where he’d lived for a couple of years; went all the way back to potluck suppers in his home state in Indiana; and ended up being about fireflies. (If you understood his point, please email me to collect your prize.)
3. Any time Eddie Van Halen touched any of his fingers to any of the six strings on his guitar.
In many ways, this was a mirror image of the experience I had when I saw the band play Time Warner Cable Arena back in April of 2012.
Roth, who turns 61 in a month, still preens and prances around – as my wife noted – like a “senile peacock.”
He wriggles his hips like Elvis, spins like James Brown, runs in place as if auditioning for a silent movie, pretends to take selfies without a camera, and uses his mic stand to mime an array of sports: baseball, golf, polo, skeet shooting, fencing.
He refers to himself in the third person, tossing out bad puns like “Fifty shades of Dave” and cracking cheesy jokes like “I’m the opposite of Bill Cosby. Diamond Dave always gets your approval.”
And each of the 24 songs in the set list is a new opportunity to alter something about his outfit without qualifying as an official costume change, whether it’s trading a blue metallic hoodie for a pinstriped suit jacket, or swapping out an Under Armour baseball hat for a newsboy cap.
Meanwhile, over there on the side, to Roth’s left, is one of the best living guitarists on the planet.
Eddie Van Halen, also now 60, is the yin to Roth’s yang. He wears non-descript clothing – a grey T-shirt, blue jeans, plain black shoes; doesn’t utter a single word (save for providing backing vocals with his 24-year-old son, bassist Wolfgang); and just closes his eyes and plays.
Yet despite all of Roth’s efforts to hog attention, you can’t take your eyes off of Eddie.
These days, he’s a little more filled out in the midsection and a lot more grey in the temples, but his fingers haven’t lost a step. He still shreds the solos on songs like “Dance the Night Away,” and “I’ll Wait,” and “Panama,” and “Jump,” and he does it with understated, unpretentious flash – a grimace, an arched back, an occasional thumbs-up are about as wild as he gets.
To put it very simply: Hearing some of the greatest guitar riffs of all time played, live, by the person who created them is at least like being in the building while watching LeBron James play hoops, and perhaps more like how it must felt to stand next to Picasso as he painted.
Near the end of the night, I pried my eyes off of Eddie as he ripped into the legendary opening chords of “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” to watch the faces in the crowd around me, and it was so worth it.
Without even thinking, middle-aged men’s faces scrunched up, lips curled into snarls, hands started twitching as they felt for their air guitars.
At that moment, I’m pretty sure the only person focusing on David Lee Roth was David Lee Roth.