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David Lee Roth in Vegas

Music Features David Lee Roth
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David Lee Roth in Vegas

In the minutes before Van Halen take the stage on their current U.S. tour, members of the road crew connect together six large squares of shiny wood flooring, creating a miniature 10’ x 10’ dance floor in front of Alex Van Halen’s drum riser. It’s a small detail amid the huge light rigs and the stacks of amplifiers, but it’s a vital one.

Once frontman David Lee Roth hits that patch of ground, he sliiiiiiiides across it with the nimble grace of Fred Astaire. He uses the sleek floor to spin around and shimmy and moonwalk, grinning like a madman the whole time. The karate kicks and splits are gone, as are the high notes in his vocal register, but what remains is the proof that he still cuts a compelling figure even in a huge amphitheater.

This version of Roth doesn’t hark back to the cocksure longhair on the back cover of the first Van Halen album, pointedly holding his microphone against his crotch, nor the drunken rambler badmouthing The Clash and threatening to fuck the girlfriend of an audience member at the 1983 US Festival. For as much crotch-grabbing and double entendres as he drops throughout, he’s instead returning to the muscle memory of the days when he revealed his most cornball side with the videos he made in support of his solo EP Crazy From The Heat, which were in heavy, heavy rotation on MTV in 1985.

In these clips—covers of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” and “Just A Gigolo,” a song popularized by Louis Prima back in 1956—Roth reveals his deep love for musical kitsch. The former video is a strange homage to Magical Mystery Tour with the singer serving as a guide through his appreciation for buxom babes from around the globe, and the latter, a mini MGM musical remade with sequin, lamé, parodies of other beloved MTV acts (Billy Idol and Boy George, among them), and an array of outlandish characters, none more outlandish than Roth himself. No karate kicks or hard rock in sight; just good-time oldies, big boobs and a toothsome grin from the blonde, hairy chested ringleader.

All that is to say that when, in 1995, Roth revealed that he was going to be setting up camp in Las Vegas, no one greeted the news with any kind of surprise. Of course he was going to playing Sin City. Was there anyone more suited for the glitz, neon and faux glamour of the gambling capital of the world than this guy? It was part reinvention, part inevitability.

Understand that at this point in Roth’s career, he was on the outs, commercially speaking. His last solo album, Your Filthy Little Mouth, a decent mixture of rock, reggae, country and R&B produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, tanked commercially. And he was still years away from fully rejoining Van Halen, notwithstanding the two tracks he recorded with the group to accompany their 1996 greatest hits album. If ever there was a place for Roth to do a nice late-career slow burn towards retirement, it was Vegas.

To hear him tell it in his 1997 memoir, Crazy From The Heat, the idea to start up a show in Nevada wasn’t born of desperation but rather the beginning stages of a new campaign for world domination.

“The mind-set was: We’re gonna take over Las Vegas,” he writes. “We’re going to own Las Vegas. We’re going to trundle through those streets like Hannibal and his elephants. We’re not gonna arrive politely.”

By all rights, that should have been the case. The backing band put together for these shows (a week of shows at Bally’s Hotel and Casino and another short run over the holidays at MGM Grand), the unfortunately named Non Stop Blues-Bustin’ Mambo Slammers, was a white hot collection of session players and marquee musicians like ’70s rocker Edgar Winter (he of “Free Ride” fame) and members of Miami Sound Machine’s horn section. And again, Roth was made for a gig like this. His hammy sense of humor, graceful dancing and still impressive singing fit perfectly into the more-is-more, campy aesthetic of Vegas.

In his book, Roth blames his agent and the powers that be at the casinos for not sticking with the show and letting it build an audience. Surely, that was a small factor, but the reality is that it all came down to timing. If Roth had ventured to desert in ’85 or ’86 after splitting with Van Halen, thousands of people would have followed in his wake. Instead, he made the logical decision to keep releasing solo albums to diminishing returns. Again, by 1995, Roth was considered an also-ran, another relic of the glam-metal era that was pushed aside by grunge, nü-metal and even his own former band who were still selling millions of albums with Sammy Hagar at the helm.

As well, he and his band didn’t make an effort to shake things up in any marked way. In Crazy From The Heat, he says “the show was designed to update Vegas to our sense of humor.” But listening to a bootleg from one of the MGM Grand shows, the reality doesn’t bear that out. Roth is a rambler with a #dadjoke sense of humor, even when he goes blue. “Is that a plunging neckline?” he asks an audience member. “Don’t sprain your ankle. You saw the sign on the door that said, ‘Minimum,’ and she’s wearing it.”

And as fine as the Slammers are as a band, they were saddled with a setlist of ’70s pop hits (“Lido Shuffle,” “My Old School”), lite funk (James Brown’s “Living In America”) and jazz standards (“That’s Life” and Duke Ellington’s “Nothing But The Blues”). There were the requisite runs through “Just A Gigolo” and “California Girls,” but anything from Roth’s former life was only cursorily represented. When the Slammers did dive back into that Van Halen catalog, the results sounded…well, just like you’d expect to hear from a gang of hired guns playing “Jump” and “Panama” in a Vegas showroom. It was a copy of a copy, with all the sex and fire of the tunes sounding smeared and dull, even with the scantily clad female dancers strutting and shaking along with the group.

The show failed with both the Vegas regulars (a review of his Bally’s run reports that the 1,400 capacity Celebrity Showroom was only half full) and even diehard fans of Roth. The former wanted the thrills of a Siegfried And Roy show or the sensory overload of the Fremont Street Experience, which opened the same year. Or at least the easy-to-swallow music history lesson of the first Hard Rock Hotel that also opened its doors in 1995. The latter just couldn’t hang. Ten years earlier, it was hilarious to watch him walk that tightrope between variety show-style entertainer and rock god. As expected as the plunge to the dark side was, it was still tough to stomach.

Roth has seemed to be trying to find himself ever since then. He’s famously worked as an EMT in New York, had a failed run as a morning radio host (replacing Howard Stern after he bolted for SiriusXM) and dabbled in everything from bluegrass to symphonic rock. Eventually, he returned back to the somewhat loving arms of Van Halen and has been performing this summer to warm reviews and copious ticket sales. Sometimes reinventing yourself winds up taking you right back to where you started.

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