30 Years Ago: David Lee Roth Kicks Off His First Solo Tour
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After acrimoniously splitting with Van Halen at the height of their fame in 1985, Roth assembled an all-star band featuring guitarist Steve Vai, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Gregg Bissonette for his first full-length solo album, the savagely witty and bare-knuckled Eat ‘Em and Smile.
With help from touring keyboardist Brett Tuggle, the foursome tore through a set list that included an equal blend of Van Halen classics and songs from its new album each night, livening up Roth’s traditional pre-“Ice Cream Man” storytelling introduction with a steel drum solo, and turning bass and guitar virtuosos Sheehan and Vai loose for an extended duel.
In the June 2016 issue of Guitar World, Sheehan told Greg Renoff that Roth pushed the duo to combine its originally independent solos together to “make it like a contest, like a tractor pull. That was the phrase he used. So Steve would come out there and start playing, I’d come up behind him and stop him and push him out of the way and play a while, then he’d push me out of the way.”
The Eat ‘Em and Smile tour played more than 100 dates before concluding on Feb. 22, 1987, at Denver’s McNichols Arena. No official footage from this tour has ever been released, though (as you can see above) there’s a good-quality fan-shot version of the entire Nov. 1, 1986, Montreal show available online.
This would be the only tour to feature the original David Lee Roth band, as Sheehan departed shortly after the release of Roth’s second solo album, 1988’s poppier, keyboard-heavy Skyscraper. He later told Fullinbloom Music that he and the singer had creatively gone down “two separate paths. I wanted a different style of music — more like Eat ‘Em and Smile.”
In 2015, Sheehan, Vai and Bissonette announced a one-off reunion show in Los Angeles, with Steel Panther singer Ralph Saenz, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Eat ‘Em and Smile. But when word leaked that Roth, who had returned to Van Halen nearly a decade earlier, would actually take the mic with his former band for a couple of songs, thousands of people attempted to get into the tiny club, forcing the fire marshal to shut the show down before it started.
Sheehan is still hopeful the group will give the reunion another shot, presumably in a much larger venue. “We hope to do it,” he said. “We don’t know if it will be just for one show. Maybe do – who knows? — Rock In Rio, or do 10 shows somewhere. And hoping to do it is not the same as planning to do it. We really hope it happens, and Dave was into it. He was great. We had a great time. It was just like the old days.”
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