"It's like climbing into a rocket in here," David Lee Roth said as he stepped onto the matchbox-sized stage at New York's 250-capacity Cafe Wha? for Van Halen's first concert in four years. "It's a rocket that comes from way back into the past into what the future's going to look like. Welcome to Occupy Van Halen, ladies and gentlemen!"
With those words Eddie Van Halen kicked into the opening notes of "You Really Got Me" and the crowd –composed almost entirely of journalists and music industry insiders – went absolutely bonkers. Over the next hour, the group played a stunningly tight set of songs from their 1978 debut LP all the way through David Lee Roth's swan song, 1984. It was a show guaranteed to make any crowd go into a collective state of hysteria, but the happiest man in the house could have been Roth himself. Dressed in beige overalls and a Brian Johnson-style newsboy hat, the singer had an ear-to-ear grin on his face all night, especially when he looked over at his 92-year-old uncle Manny – the founder of Cafe Wha? – who was seated in the corner. "Last time I stood on a stage this low I had to have the car back by midnight," Roth joked early in the night. "This is one of our best nights ever."
I stood a good five feet in front of Eddie Van Halen (dressed in ripped jeans and a black t-shirt) and the man played absolutely flawlessly. It was a beautiful sight. Before the start of a Van Halen tour you never know what Ed you're getting. The 2004 Van Hagar Ed was a drunken, shirtless mess. The 2007/08 reunion Ed was cleaned up and together, and that clearly is the case today. While Roth ordered drinks from the stage and took some shots, Ed restricted himself to bottled water and a couple of Red Bulls.
About half a second after the end of "You Really Got Me," Wolfgang Van Halen played the opening notes of "Running With The Devil." By that point the crazy reality that we were seeing Van Halen in a tiny, sweaty basement club began to kick in. These songs (not to mention the performers) were programmed to rock massive basketball arenas. Seeing that all that energy crammed into a basement club was surreal. It's a shame so few fans outside of the press were able to witness it.
It was clear that Dave's voice isn't quite as strong as it was back in the day, but he more than compensated for that with incredible energy and charisma. It must be said, however, that original bassist Michael Anthony's backing vocals were sorely missed. They need them now more than ever, and as talented a bassist as Wolfgang clearly is (especially for a 20-year-old), it was a real lame move to push Anthony out of the band.
After just two songs, Dave began a long spoken interlude that clearly tested the patience of the Van Halen men. "I could see your naked, steaming eyes," Roth said. "I see a lot of familiar faces. A lot of folks from the media. A lot of folks from the record company. A lot of folks that we grew up with here. How many of you people know Lady Gaga? I was watching her on New Year's Eve with Mayor Bloomberg and it's kind of an interesting story . . ." This went on for a few long minutes, but then Dave screamed out "Somebody Get Me a Doctor!" and all was forgiven.
The return of Roth to the band means that the group's entire history with Sammy Hagar (not to mention Gary Cherone) has essentially been erased. That still leaves them with plenty of great material, and the setlist for the show seemed like the playlist for a classic rock radio station. They also played "Everybody Wants Some!!," "Dance The Night Away," "Hot For Teacher," "Ice Cream Man," "Panama," "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love" and "Jump." The only song from their upcoming LP was "She's The Woman," but there's a good reason that it sounded so much like a classic Van Halen song: It's a demo from 1976 that's been circulating in the fan community for years. Parts of it were eventually used on "Mean Street." They have since fleshed out the track, but its inclusion on the new album seems to bolster Sammy Hagar's contention that parts of the disc are recycled old bits – not that it really matters. A good song is a good song and they should use the best material they have available to them.
Midway through a blazing "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love" Roth explained to the crowd that it was impossible to leave the stage for an encore, so we were instructed to pretend that they left and came back. The finale of "Jump" didn't quite take off – partially due to the fact that the piped-in keyboards were largely inaudible –but it hardly mattered. Van Halen had braved a crowd that seemingly contained every music journalist in the city, and proved to all of them they still have the goods. They have yet to grant a single interview, but it's clearly all part of a strategy to build buzz around the new disc and tour – though they didn't play their upcoming single "Tattoo."
A setlist taped next to Alex's drum kit said that "Beautiful Girls" and "Unchained" were supposed to wrap up the show, but after "Jump" the band was ushered out a back door and driven away. A new single and video are going to be released soon, and their tour is going on sale January 10th.
The last 14 years have been rough for Van Halen fans. The last three tours featured three different singers, and for most of that time the band was completely inactive. Let's hope this club show is the dawn of a better, more productive era for the band. It sure seems like that's the case.