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Van Halen's Blazing Return

Reunited with David Lee Roth, the hard-rock quartet reboots with NY club show

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

"Welcome to Occupy Van Halen!," said a grinning David Lee Roth, as the band took to the stage of New York's tiny basement club, Café Wha?, for an invitation-only show last night. Eddie Van Halen responded with the immortal riff from the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," one of Van Halen's early hits, and the iconic hard-rock quartet was off and running for an impressively irresistible hour-long reunion.

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The occasion was the announcement of a new album, "A Different Kind of Truth," to be released on Feb. 7 -- the first Van Halen studio recording with Roth in almost thirty years. A 45-city tour will follow, kicking off in Louisville on Feb.18. Though the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have been hinting at these projects in recent weeks, the confirmation went out in a press release a few minutes after they left the Café Wha? stage (the release actually said that the announcement was made during the performance, though in fact none of this information was mentioned).

Roth and the three Van Halen family members who currently make up the band -- Eddie on guitar; Alex on drums; and Wolfgang, Eddie's son, on bass, replacing original member Michael Anthony -- blazed through eleven songs: ten of the band's greatest hits, including "Runnin' With the Devil," "Panama" and "Dance the Night Away," and one new song, "She's the Woman," built on an infectious, cascading funk riff. (They did not play "Tattoo," the first single from the new album, scheduled to debut next Tuesday.)

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A muddy, bass-heavy mix made it hard to gauge the full strength of Roth's vocals, though he unleashed enough of his signature banshee wails to show that he can still reach into the top of his range. The band, meanwhile, effectively navigated the rapid stops and starts and background harmonies that defined Van Halen's massively influential candy-coated heavy metal.

Of course, the biggest highlight for the 250 writers, executives, and VIPs -- including Jimmy Fallon and John McEnroe --crammed into the club, was watching Eddie Van Halen's guitar pyrotechnics at close range. With a floppy shag haircut falling over his eyes, and a smile on his face for most of the set, Eddie's playing was precise and concise. There was no extended solo showcase, like his signature freak-out "Eruption," but he nailed the rapid-fire hammer-ons in "Ice Cream Man" and the nasty, swooping runs of "Everybody Wants Some." The audience responded with chants of "Ed-die! Ed-die!" at the set's conclusion, as he graciously pointed to his bandmates.

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Unfortunately, if predictably, "Diamond Dave"-- wearing brown overalls and a newsboy cap -- interrupted the show's momentum several times with rambling monologues, covering his days working as an EMT in New York during the '90s, the demographics of various Los Angeles neighborhoods and an imitation of Jim Morrison singing "Stairway to Heaven." The Van Halens looked on with a mix of bemusement and impatience; when Wolfgang (at age 20, he's the same age as many of the neighborhood's New York University students) thumped a couple of notes after a few minutes of Roth's yammering, the singer snapped back "Hold on one second, kiddo."

To be fair, it was an emotional night for Roth. His uncle, Manny Roth, owned the Café Wha? in the 1960s, when the club presented the likes of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. A beaming Manny, now 92 years old, was seated front and center for last night's show. (The club is also just a block and a half from Washington Square Park, where the original Van Halen lead singer was busted for buying marijuana in 1993.) Roth recalled his first visit to the venue in 1961. "It only took us fifty years to get this gig," he said. "I am more nervous about this gig than I would ever be at the Garden."

Since parting ways with Roth following the ten-million-selling "1984" album, and working with Sammy Hagar and later Gary Cherone as lead vocalist, the band has attempted to reunite with the singer before, with results disastrous (a horrific appearance at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards) and successful (the 2007-2008 North American tour). For sixty minutes in a sweaty club, Van Halen may not have lived up to Roth's pronouncement that this was "inarguably one of the best gigs of all time," but they proved that they can still deliver the thrills musically, while the band members' personalities remain as different as ever.

Slightly altering the lyrics to the gloriously stupid rave-up "Hot for Teacher," David Lee Roth shouted, "I told you we was coming back -- sounds like you missed us!" Let the games begin.

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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