Just eight weeks after playing the minuscule Greenwich Village club the Cafe Wha?, Van Halen returned last night to their natural habitat: Madison Square Garden. The arena is roughly 80 times larger than that basement club – and they filled it with confetti cannons, ludicrously oversized flags, one of the biggest video screens since U2’s Popmart and an actual dance floor in the front of the stage where David Lee Roth was able to perform his signature dance moves, baton twirls and high leg kicks. Had he attempted any of those at the Cafe Wha? last month, he probably would have given concussions to half of the front row.
Van Halen has been off the road since their reunion tour with Roth ended four years ago, and the band’s hardcore fans were clearly pumped up for the show. Scores of drunken, middle-aged fans were belting out the lyrics to “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” in the entranceway to the Garden before even getting their tickets scanned. The show began shortly before 9:00 p.m. with Alex Van Halen bashing out a quick drum beat before his brother ran out and played the familiar intro to “You Really Got Me.” Seconds later David Lee Roth emerged, twirling a giant silver baton. He was wearing a Neil Diamond-style sequined jacket, a manic ear-to-ear grin and looked not unlike The Joker posing as some sort of demented parade marshal.
Diamond Dave was also sporting a wireless microphone on his head, which made it easier for him to bust out all of his dance moves. The sight of Roth in a Madonna-mic took some getting used to, but his voice sounded stronger than it has in years. The singer spent his two post-Van Halen decades playing smaller and smaller venues, and it’s clear he’s still relishing his return to the big time. It was also immediately apparent that Eddie was in top form. The drunken, samurai-haired disaster of the 2004 Van Hagar reunion tour has been replaced by the sober Eddie of the old days. Thank god. The video screen was enormous, but largely a complete waste. Most everything but Eddie’s guitar solo was shown in black and white, and they kept putting up recent still photographs of the band during key moments. (I guess any old photographs are taboo because they’d show a certain fired bass player.) Like so many things in the Van Halen world, it was baffling.
The setlist teetered between familiar hits (“Runnin’ With The Devil,” “Hot For Teacher”), fan favorites (“Romeo Delight,” “Women In Love”) songs from their new LP (“Tattoo,” “China Town”) and genuine deep cuts (“Girl Gone Bad,” “Hear About It Later.”) They made sure to never go too long without busting out a giant radio hit, and the fact that tracks from 1984 outnumbered cuts from the new album is telling. Roth even flubbed the lyrics to “China Town.” “I forgot the fucking words,” he said midway through. “Go to the chorus.” Lead-off single “Tattoo,” however, sounded shockingly great.
Wolfgang Van Halen – now 20 years old and slimmed down since his debut as the new bassist five years ago – seemed significantly more confident than he did last time out. His background vocals sounded suspiciously flawless though, possibly lending credence to the fan theory that the group uses piped-in background vocals. It’s very hard to say for certain – though the background vocals during “Woman In Love” and “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” sounded like Wolfie and Eddie were channeling Michael Anthony.
Halfway through the show Roth shed his Madonna-mic in favor of a traditional hand-held one. He also played an acoustic guitar for his spotlight moment in “Ice Cream Man” – which was preceded by one of his trademark non-sequitur rants. “Thank god for dogs or we’d never get that new smell off our jeans,” he said as the screens showed video of a dog chasing a flock of sheep. “I’m probably the only rock star who owns livestock for non-recreative purposes…Who likes ice cream?” Shortly afterwards Eddie took center stage for his guitar solo, which eventually went into “Eruption.” It was absolutely jaw-dropping, and proof that even after all the crazy, dark, lost years, he’s still one of the best guitarists in the game.
During the solo, Roth, Alex and Wolfgang stood behind the drum riser and had what looked like a pleasant conversation. Roth and Alex were laughing, and even putting their arms around each other. We’ll never know how the band functions offstage, but it was nice to see some band camaraderie when they were at least out of the spotlight onstage. The night ended with a one-two punch of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and the inevitable “Jump.” There was no encore, and the band all raised their hands together before everyone with the last name Van Halen walked offstage in unison. Roth stayed behind just a few more moments, soaking up every bit of the thunderous applause.
Now, this was definitely not Van Halen at their peak. It was hard not to miss Michael Anthony, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Dave and Ed despise each other, but have realized they can’t have much of a career unless they work together. At times it felt like they were going through the motions, and the fact that they just did four of the 13 new tracks (and barely did anything to promote the new album these past few weeks) shows that this is a band well aware that their best days are behind them. Still, this is the only Van Halen we have, and this is the best show they’ve put together in quite some time.