Friday, June 25, 1999 | 3:21 a.m.
On the first of his six-night engagement at Bally's on Thursday, David Lee Roth announced that he has been "wanting to play in Las Vegas a long, long time," conveniently forgetting that he was here several times as a member of Van Halen and once as a solo rock act.
Roth is neither anymore, so maybe what he meant is that he's wanted to play Las Vegas as the performer he is now -- a short-haired interpreter of pop, blues, soul, mambo and swing tunes and the ever-grinning, social-commentating front man of a 14-piece band.
The good news is that around 700 people showed up to see his Strip debut. The bad news is that Bally's Celebrity Showroom seats 1,400. It must have been disheartening for Roth to see a half-empty theater, but he was outwardly optimistic, smiling that rictus smile of his for most of the 90-minute performance.
Based on the crowd's demographic makeup and its reaction to his show, it would appear that Roth's is an act without an audience. Clearly, the people who clamored to see him when he was lead singer of Van Halen deserted him here, and those who saw him Thursday -- many of them wrinkled and gray -- were little more than politely respectful.
That is less a reflection on Roth than it is on them, for Roth and his Blues-Bustin' Mambo Slammers -- which feature Edgar Winter on saxophone -- put on the type of variety show Las Vegas grew up on.
It had musicians playing their instruments onstage instead of on tape, a compendium of songs and styles, two nearly dressed dancers (one of Roth's few concessions to his past), an attractive female singer and Dave himself, mugging to and joking with the audience as he crisscrossed the stage in his matching black-and-white checkered bell-bottoms and vest.
True, it would have been nothing more than a good lounge act in the old days, but then almost nothing in Las Vegas is as it was. In that sense, the showroom is a good fit for Roth, who bears little resemblance to his former long-maned, high-kicking self.
Only once did he execute his famous spinning back kick, and he fittingly saved it for "Jump." It was one of the two Van Halen songs he offered ("Ice Cream Man" was the other) and the only song that noticeably defibrillated this mostly code-blue audience.
Roth's encore -- "you gotta cheer louder or I'm not coming back," he shouted from the wings -- was "Just a Gigolo," his popular remake of the song Louie Prima made famous.
Conclusion: Now that he's jettisoned most of his original material for the opportunity to tread well-worn musical styles and cover songs by James Brown ("Living in America") and Boz Scaggs ("Lido Shuffle"), Roth has become the consummate Vegas entertainer: talented and amusing but sadly irrelevant.
David Lee Roth
* WHEN: 9 tonight through Wednesday.
* WHERE: Bally's Celebrity Showroom.
* TICKETS: $38.50. Reserved seating can be obtained by calling the Bally's box office, 739-4567.