Live review: Van Halen dazzle at rare New York City club gig

"The last time I stood on a stage this low, we had to have the car back by midnight!" David Lee Roth joked early into Van Halen's exuberant, musically rich performance at New York City's Cafe Wha? this evening (5 January).

It was the first of many such quips the chatty, effervescent and thoroughly engaging frontman - wearing tan overalls and a tweed newsboy cap, a far cry from the buttless chaps he sported back in the day - would peel off during the band's brief appearance (just shy of 60 minutes) at the tiny club that would have certainly been the hottest ticket in town - if there were tickets, that is: This was an invitation-only show for journalists and music industry folks, timed to whip up excitement in the lead-up to Van Halen's upcoming single (Tattoo, out next week) and album (A Different Kind Of Truth, coming 7 February).


And exciting it was; in fact, the all-but-greatest-hits revue (11 songs in all, with only one new number offered) virtually wound back the clock and turned the typically jaded 250 Big Applers - packed shoulder-to-shoulder and amazed the band were practically right on top of them - into fist-raising, out-of-control, cheering and screaming teenagers.

Doubling down from the word go, the group opened with wham-bam versions of You Really Got Me and Runnin' With The Devil, with Eddie Van Halen looking loose and jovial, effortlessly sifting through exhilarating variations on his classic "brown" sound while dispatching striking sheets of notes, along with a crafty assortment of dive bombs, two-hand taps and harmonic squeals.

At the same time, however, the guitarist - one of rock's most gifted and original instrumentalists, who remains, in 2012, a commanding, daring musical force - seemed to find new pockets of air to explore. This was especially true during the fourth song, Everybody Wants Some, in which he fit his playing in and around brother Alex's thunderous drumming and the fluid basslines provided by son, Wolfgang.

With no kind of introduction, the debut of She's The Woman took most people in the room by surprise, but they quickly warmed up to the funky, groove-based number that apparently dates back to demos cut in 1976. Here, too, Eddie dug in and stretched out, working in melodies that were by turns sassy, snarling and vaguely mysterious.

"It took me 50 years to get this gig"

More hits followed - Dance The Night Away, Panama, Hot For Teacher (Alex swinging through the opening on a four-piece Ludwig kit was a particularly highlight) - but before Ice Cream Man, Roth, strapping on an acoustic guitar, wanted to make sure that he pointed out his strong, personal ties to the Cafe Wha?

His uncle, Manny, now aged 92 and in the audience, used to own and operate the nightspot. David talked eloquently of coming to the venue as a kid, soaking up the milieu and being told of a up-and-coming folk singer named Bobby Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan). He even recounted how he once carved his initials on the banister.

"It took me 50 years to get this gig," he said. "It was easier getting into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame." And then, his eyes welling with emotion, he said, "This place is a temple. I'm more nervous about this gig than I've been at the Garden." Amid cheers, he added, "And there are no fake vocals up here! No fake anything!"

A dark, wicked Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love led to a set-closing Jump. During the celebratory finale, Eddie decorated his solo with frisky, quirky turns, and the boyish look on his face indicated that, even after almost 30 years, he was still capable of surprising himself. And when you're routinely blowing everybody else away, that's saying something.

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.