Flashback: Van Halen Rocks Cafe Wha?

Seven years ago this month, the original Van Halen — well, three quarters of the classic line-up — played their first show together in 3 1/2 years at Cafe Wha?, the West Village club owned by David Lee Roth’s uncle Manny. It was a magical evening, and I lucked out in being only one of 250 people to attend. I couldn’t get a +1, for which some of my friends have probably never forgiven me. Here’s the recap of that show.

This review was originally posted on January 6, 2012.

“It took us fifty years to get this gig,” joked Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, casually dressed in a cap and overalls, before he launched into the acoustic intro to “Ice Cream Man”. “It was easier to get into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.”

Roth was being facetious, of course, but he made it clear tonight that playing the small, 250-person Cafe Wha?, the West Village NYC club owned by his 92-year old Uncle Manny (who was in attendance) was a bit nerve-wracking. There were no stage clothes, big stage sets, pyrotechnics or a bruising wall of sound to hide behind. There certainly weren’t any complaints from the enthused crowd crammed into the cozy venue. This was live, bare bones Van Halen in 2012 — Roth, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Wolfgang Van Halen — rocking out a crowd of journalists, industry insiders and celebs (Jimmy Fallon, John McEnroe and Patty Smyth in the house) who were lucky enough to be invited to this intimate gig at a club more suited to jazz and blues than hard rock. (Those three EVH 5150 amps on display did not reside at this address normally.) The music was loud but not bombastic, and thankfully so given the circumstances.

As a prelude to the upcoming Van Halen studio album A Different Kind of Truth (their first with Roth in 28 years) and world tour, both of which emerge next month, this was a genius marketing concept. A worldwide buzz rapidly generated following Monday’s announcement of a small, invitation-only gig in NYC. The Roth family history connection to the club added a human interest element to the story, on top of the fact that the group cut their teeth playing bars and house parties in Southern California back in the Seventies, so they had quite literally come full circle. (Further, Roth claimed he carved his name on a post here when he was seven years old.) Then bringing in media peeps and offering them free booze was just a smart move.

But how was the music, you ask? It sounded pretty damn good in front of our “naked, steaming eyes,” as David Lee put it. The 11-song set offered a cross-section of hits from the classic VH era — they opened with “You Really Got Me” and closed with “Jump” — and the new song “She’s The Woman” allegedly dates back to that vintage time period, albeit with a touch of the gritty guitar tone that Eddie used for the new tracks on the Best Of Both Worlds compilation back in 2004. It is hard to judge it based on one listen in a live setting, but “She’s The Woman” sounded good and in sync with the set.

Overall, the quartet was tight, and the energy and enthusiasm on stage quite palpable. As a drummer, I felt for Alex, crammed behind a smaller than usual kit with a snare, hi-hat, one mounted tom, one floor tom and two cymbals. Oh yes, and only one kick drum. But he managed well and cleverly played a pipe behind him during the intro to “Dance The Night Away”. The mix was a bit lopsided on my side (stage right), with Wolfgang’s bass overwhelming the drums (heresy!), but for the most part it was pretty good given the nature of the venue. Eddie’s playing was dynamic and fluid (he’s still got it!), and the rhythm section kept things chugging along at a fine pace. (I do miss Michael Anthony’s bass and vocal harmonies, though. He should have been there.) And Roth was, well, Roth. Would you expect any less?

Now there have been complaints about DLR’s vocals from the group’s 2007 reunion tour, with some fans complaining that the blonde belter had lost it. While there were some moments when it sounded like he strained to hit certain high notes (some argued it was the mix, not the singer), there were other times he was spot on. Rumors of his voice’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Consistency aside, he was still the consummate showman, entertaining the audience with stories about his Uncle Manny, seeing Lady Gaga at Pianos before anyone knew who she was and describing his work as an EMT (although that went on a bit, with Eddie half-jokingly checking his watch). Roth imitated Jim Morrison singing “Stairway To Heaven” at one point, and he snagged somebody’s drink and took a swig before another number. Roth lives to entertain, and as he strutted across the small stage, it was cleared that he owned it.

Van Halen 2012 (L to R): Alex Van Halen,
David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen and Wolfgang Van Halen.

How the intimacy of this performance will translate into an arena venue is another matter. It would be cool to see Van Halen do what the Rolling Stones did a few years ago and mix up arena, amphitheatre and even club dates. For those expecting to see DLR jumping and somersaulting his way through a set like he did 30 years ago, or Eddie bouncing around like before he had his hip replacement surgery, dream on. But let’s face it, these guys are in middle age now, and it might seem almost strange if they were that energetic. The music is key here, and VH reminded us of that tonight, although for some folks they might not want nostalgic memories replaced by a different, less hyperactive version of the famous quartet. As my mother once commented to me when I was dumbfounded that one classic critic had complained that Pavarotti had “missed a note” during one concert later in his career, she replied that people are lucky to see these artists at all. Word.

While it’s become a bit surreal to think of bands like Van Halen and Judas Priest still rocking away through their fifties, it’s important to still have these guys around. There’s almost nobody in the current generation who will have this kind of longevity. And that’s not me being a jaded industry vet; it’s simply the truth. The music’s still good live, and that’s the main thing.


You Really Got Me
Runnin’ With The Devil
Somebody Get Me A Doctor
Everybody Wants Some!!
She’s The Woman
Dance The Night Away
Hot For Teacher
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love

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