At Hirsch Memorial Coliseum, Shreveport, Louisiana: I was 15 and the concert experience was pretty new to me when my aunt pointed her Mustang down I-20 toward Shreveport with her best friend and her nephew (that would be me) in tow. We were going to see a relatively new band named Poison, whose second record we had been rocking on the back roads in that same Mustang for a few weeks.
They were opening for former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth, touring in support of his most recent record Skyscraper. I was, at the time, a moderate Van Halen fan, and I really liked Roth’s first full-length solo record Eat ‘Em and Smile and even the EP of strange covers he’d done prior to that. Still, I was more excited to see the opening act. I often was during those days. On the way in the building, I bought a Poison T-shirt (back when you could actually afford to buy a shirt at a show), but on the way out, I wished I had waited to get the DLR. I don’t remember a thing about the opening set, but Roth’s performance is one that I still compare shows to today.
By that time, Roth had put together a formidable backing band. With Steve Vai on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass and Greg Bissonette on drums, it could be argued that the raw talent in his solo band outshined the original Van Halen lineup. I probably spent about as much time trying to make my guitar talk the way Vai did in “Yankee Rose” as I did trying to figure out that first Eddie Van Halen tapping lick in “Hot for Teacher.”
[READ OUR REVIEW OF 'TRUTH': In a pre-release review, we called Van Halen's 'A Different Kind of Truth' "a return to form in the most complete sense of the word."]
There have been a lot of years and a lot of concerts between then and now, so I can’t even pretend that I remember the full set list. I do remember it was heavy on Skyscraper material, and since I didn’t have that album at the time, I didn’t know a lot of it. I also remember some key moments. Vai, for example, playing those aforementioned licks from “Hot for Teacher,” one of several VH classics that Roth slid in among his tunes – “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and, of course, “Jump,” were also in there. His solo hits were there – “Yankee Rose,” “Goin’ Crazy,” “Stand Up,” “Just Like Paradise” (complete with Vai playing the triple-necked heart guitar from the video). The set was heavy on covers, as well, his version of “Tobacco Road,” which I still like, and, of course, “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo,” both of which were big hits off that Crazy from the Heat EP. I also swear I remember them playing one of my favorites from Eat ‘Em and Smile, the revved-up cover of “Shy Boy,” an original from Sheehan’s little-known band Talas. None of the few set lists I could find online from that tour, though, mentioned the songs, so it could be just foggy, wishful remembering.
What I recall more than the songs played, though, and what will always stick with me about that night, was the showmanship. For whatever Roth might lack in vocal chops, he’s always made up for in stage presence and performance. On that night, he was on top of his game, bouncing around all over the stage, kicking and leaping with manic energy. At one point, he rappelled from the lights to the stage. He performed “Panama” from a boxing ring suspended from the roof of the arena and then rode a surfboard over the crowd back to the stage as he sang “California Girls.” It was a production drenched in the excess of the late 1980s, and I loved it.
Sure, the singing wasn’t perfect while he was doing all that stuff, but they never were. And nobody cared. With his flashy outfits and outlandish performance, he was a rock star in the fullest sense of the word for those couple of hours, and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
Roth was far from the first rocker to put on a big production, but at the time, I had never seen anything like this show. It made a huge impact on me. It made me want to be a rock star myself, a dream which, sadly, I never had the talent to even attempt to fulfill. Whatever you might say about Diamond Dave, he worked his ass off for the crowd that night, and I appreciated that. In fact, I still do.