"We're baaaaack!" was the battle cry. "Hot for Teacher" was the song. David Lee Roth was the singer - a man no one expected to see high-fiving Eddie Van Halen on a concert stage in this lifetime.
But Van Halen, in near-original formation, has returned from the land of acrimonious break-ups and substitute frontmen for a reunion tour that will surely satisfy rock fans hungry for that vacuous '80s feeling.
Variety was never the hallmark of Van Halen's catalog, but they've produced a boatload of lighter-raising grooves and winningly mindless anthems. The band jammed a couple dozen of them into their two-hour set last night at the Garden, starting with the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and closing with a confetti-splattered sing-along of "Jump."
In between the foursome fell into iconic, if somewhat modified, roles. Founding bassist Michael Anthony was given the boot to make room for Eddie's 16-year-old son Wolfgang, a fine player and harmony singer who filled his predecessor's position with quiet aplomb. Alex kept rhythms rolling and rumbling as reliably as ever. Roth was a sadder version of his old cartoonish self, grinning madly and strutting stupidly and mustering as much enthusiasm as he could in a new, narrower vocal range. His halfhearted leg kicks and awkward twirling of the mike only served as reminders of antics gone by.
The concert stood as a startling statement of who Van Halen really belongs to. Eddie was, and still is, the guitar god whose phenomenal technique and astonishing vocabulary transforms Van Halen into more than a pop-metal party band. While Roth pranced in a red top hat during "Runnin' With the Devil," revved like a motorcycle for "Everybody Wants Some," and changed into his third toreador jacket to sing "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," Eddie played endlessly remarkable rock music. His lengthy guitar solo was one of the night's finest moments.
The other memorable moment arrived an hour and a half in, when Roth was left alone on the stage to reminisce about 1972, rolling joints and playing five sets a night for $150 and a girl named Arlene, who always asked him to play "Ice Cream Man," which he did, for us, on acoustic guitar. It was Roth's single display of real, unforced showmanship.
Ky-Mani Marley's earthy R&B and hip-hop has less than nothing in common with Van Halen. But there he was, dusting off his famous father's most famous songs ("No Woman, No Cry," "Roots, Rock, Reggae") for a pop-metal crowd. Somebody needs to get this talented fellow a slot on the right tour, and advise him to lose the covers if he wants to make his own name.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com.