How David Lee Roth Stormed Back With ‘DLR Band’
David Lee Roth dealt fans a surprise when he dropped a raucous guitar-infused double A-side single, “Slam Dunk!” and “King of the Hill” in early May 1998. A full-length independent album, titled DLR Band, followed on June 9.
It was the most straightforward rock 'n' roll effort since his solo debut, 1985’s Eat ‘Em and Smile.
Van Halen's original singer hadn’t made a proper rock album since A Little Ain’t Enough in 1991. His follow-ups included the jazzy pop of Your Filthy Little Mouth in 1994 and an ill-fated left turn into Las Vegas lounge act the following year.
“It was great, but that was a vacation,” he said of his time in Vegas. “In a world of music where we’re dealing with people who only have a fascination with one kind of music, only buy one kind of music, only listen to one kind of music, well then you expect whatever you hear from a musician is forever. I’m cursed – I change here and there – but it’s not forever. I keep hailing back to a red-hot date baited at a dangerous age and 132 beats a minute.”
Having reunited with his old Van Halen bandmates two years earlier to work on a pair of songs for the Best Of – Volume 1 project, a bogus reunion that had left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, Roth found renewed interest in the type of music that made him famous.
The “Slam Dunk!”/“King of the Hill” single was conceived and recorded in just four days, according to Roth, who added with typical flair, “And four days because I missed a day. … I pulled a hamstring chasin’ a stripper from Dallas.” The songs' immediacy and fiery guitar work grabbed most fans almost instantly. It turned out Roth recruited two six-string upstarts for the project.
“These guys are brand new,” Roth said. “These are new faces, they are not session players, these are not background players. The fella who played on “King of the Hill” [Mike Hartman] just turned 21 and ... just arrived from Marion, Ind. – literally, really – and on “Slam Dunk!” it’s a fella name John Lowery. He himself is like 24 years old and he himself is brand new on the scene. These are the new faces! Just as Eddie V. and Steve Vai may have been for the 1980s, I think these guys are certainly the ones to watch here on the playing field.”
Later known as John 5, Lowery had worked with Rob Halford on his industrial project 2wo, but hooking up with Roth was a career highlight, one that wouldn’t be easy on him schedule-wise. The guitarist was prepping for a European tour with 2wo, with rehearsals starting around noon. Roth wanted him fresh and insisted they begin recording at 6 in the morning.
“I was like, ‘Okay ... ’ So I got there, I remember driving there, no cars on the freeway, sun’s coming up. I was like, ‘This is incredible,’ you know, he’s my hero,” Lowery recalled years later. “I got there and I’m tuning up. … I remember [Dave] said to me, “All right boys, we’re gonna do this just like the Van Halen days; if you can’t do it in two takes, you can’t do it. Let’s get goin.’ I can hardly walk straight at 6 in the morning.”
Lowery ended up playing on half the album, handling both guitar and bass duties – the latter under the pseudonym “B'urbon Bob.” In addition to the “Slam Dunk!,” the DLR Band opener, his fluid and innovative playing stood out throughout the album. (Check out his work on “Counter-Blast,” “Wa Wa Zat!!” and “Relentless.”)
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Hartman was no slouch either; even though he performed on just two tracks (both guitar and bass), “King of the Hill” and “Inddedido,” his work is searing. He later reconfigured both songs for his solo debut, Black Glue, which came out the next year. (Hartman battled cystic fibrosis his entire life and died in 2000.)
The remainder of the guitar playing came courtesy of Terry Kilgore, who was in Roth’s pre-Van Halen group Red Ball Jet. The two had linked up again on Your Filthy Little Mouth, and he was a perfect fit for the record's more bluesy aspects. Newcomer Ray Luzier – plucked from Metal Shop, an early version of Steel Panther – handled drums.
Roth’s voice wasn't as well suited to all of the songs: He's best on slow burners like “Lose the Dress (Keep the Shoes)” and the elegant, poignant album closer, “Black Sand.” Even with its flaws, it was still better than his old band's latest LP, Van Halen III, which had slid to the bottom half of the Top 200 in quick fashion.
DLR Band received little promotion other than a handful of radio interviews here and there. There was no tour – maybe because Roth didn’t want to compete with his former band, which was still playing arenas. Instead, he waited a full year to head out for a summer trek, opening for a reunited Bad Company.
Lowery had moved on to Marilyn Manson's band by then. Hartman was out of commission after a car accident in which he and his wife were hit by a drunk driver. Bart Walsh, a guitarist from the Van Halen tribute band Atomic Punks, was tapped for a jaunt that featured sporadic “Slam Dunk!” performances.
Still, Roth got typically boastful when asked if DLR Band would take away from the struggling Van Halen. “I don’t know if it’s gonna steal the thunder,” he mused. “If it does, that’s their fault. It’s like when people are slamming each other in the mosh pit: It’s because what’s happening onstage is boring to watch."
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