We Asked a Van Halen Expert about Their Reunion Performance on Jimmy Kimmel

He talks about that whole broken nose thing, Wolfie on bass, DLR in a body suit....

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Apr 3 2015, 2:36pm

On Monday night, veteran rockers Van Halen remerged after nearly two years in hibernation and performed live in Hollywood on the neon-washed set of Jimmy Kimmel Live! Even though they ostensibly came to plug their new 'Tokyo Dome Live in Concert' album, the band's main focus was juicing sales for their upcoming summer tour, which gets underway in July. While the audience got to enjoy the whole set that night, the Kimmel show would broadcast five Van Halen live performances over two nights, "Panama," "Runnin' with the Devil," "Hot For Teacher," "Eruption," "You Really Got Me" and a portion of "Dance the Night Away."

So how did frontman extraordinaire David Lee Roth and the three Van Halens, Eddie, Alex, and the band's newest member, Eddie's son Wolfie, do in selling America on Van Halen as a live act in 2015? Well if "Panama" represented your first time seeing and hearing the band in a spell, there were some WTF moments right out of the gate.

To be sure, Van Halen's patented power and volume is there from the start. Wolfie does a yeoman's job in holding down the bottom end while his uncle and father thunder away. Eddie and Alex, both now in their sixties, look healthy and happy. As Eddie rips through the song's riff, Roth appears next to him, grinning and mugging for the crowd, as always. But flashing under Roth's jeans jacket ensemble is an elaborate Japanese body-suit tattoo that runs the length of his chest. Roth's shorn brown hair, too, makes him look more like an accountant than a rock star.

Then there's his nose. He's sporting an oversized bandage across the bridge of his nose. Rhinoplasty? A giant Breathe-Right strip? Nope. Turns out that Diamond Dave whacked himself in the face while he spinning a baton during the opening of "Panama." The band then launched into an improvised jam while Roth staunched the bleeding. Live TV viewers were none the wiser since Van Halen took it from the top once Roth returned.

But all of that's window dressing once Roth begins to sing. Roth, it seems, like many aging vocalists, has lost much of the high end off of his voice. Forget his patented whistle register screams that punctuated every great song the band ever released back in the day, the chorus on 'Panama' -- hardly an example of a technically challenging vocal part -- gives Roth fits. Things don't get much better for Roth as the night proceeds. While the band smokes, he struggles with "Devil," too, before delivering in an adequate performances on "Teacher" and "You Really Got Me." Still, it's evident that he's giving it a go, sticking a finger in his ear to help him stay on key, singing every verse and chorus with gusto.

In the wake of the band's appearance, America voted on social media about Van Halen, and delivered a mixed review. Most viewers trashed Roth for his vocal shortcomings. The common wisdom seems to be that while Van Halen is still an instrumental powerhouse, and that Eddie may be playing better than he's played in two decades, Roth has lost it as a live vocalist.

Here I must dissent. As a writer who has talked to scores of people who saw Van Halen during their formative years, I can tell you that the knock on David Lee Roth from the first days he partnered with the Van Halen brothers back in 1973 was that as a singer, he was a poor match when measured against the brilliance of Eddie Van Halen. Think about it. The hard rock vocal gods of the 70s -- Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, and Ian Gillan -- could hit every note live. Roth? Not so much.

That said, Roth did rise to the occasion by performing well as a singer on Van Halen's first two world tours in 1978 and 1979, unleashing his spine-tingling screams with abandon, and keeping the melodies intact, even as he entertained the crowd.

By the early 80s, though, David Lee Roth put his emphasis on turning Van Halen's giant arena shows into massive parties. If he missed a verse while launching himself off of a giant drum riser, guess what, the armies of teenagers in the audience who'd smoked some Mexican dirt weed and pounded Southern Comfort couldn't have cared less. I know, because I was one of them. Here was a guy who was half-Tarzan, half-superhero who turned an arena show into a giant keg party punctuated with circus-like acrobatics. Nobody went to see Van Halen live back in the early 80s to enjoy the melodious vocal stylings of one David Lee Roth.

So here we are in 2015. Roth is still shaking his ass, fucking around with chicks in the audience, and grinning like a manic as he sings. Long gone are the insane leaps, the windmill karate kicks, and backflips that made Van Halen a must-see arena show back in the day. That said, so today do we want Diamond Dave, arguably rock's greatest frontman ever, to check his party-vibe at the door and stand in front of a mic stand while trying to nail every note? Fuck no.

And do take note of Eddie and Alex's expressions on the Kimmel show while Roth does his ADHD thing. They are smiling and laughing, and enjoying the proceedings. They aren't cringing or frowning while Roth sings. Why? Because they know David Lee Roth as a singer in 2015 isn't a markedly different vintage from David Lee Roth circa 1973. Vocals were never Job One for David Lee Roth as live performer. Why would we want it to be now?

My advice? If you go see Van Halen this summer, thank your higher power that Eddie, who looked like walking death in 2004, is out kicking ass with his brother and his son. And when Roth proposes a toast after he flubs another verse, drink up and enjoy the party, just like Van Halen fans have done since 1973.

Greg Renoff ain't just talkin' bout love with his forthcoming book Van Halen Rising. Follow him on twitter.