Inside Van Halen's New York City Club Show

Van Halen Press Conference - H 2011
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Van Halen Press Conference - H 2011

"I’m more nervous about this gig than I would ever be at the Garden," David Lee Roth confessed during the band's intimate Cafe Wha? performance.

As part of a publicity juggernaut to herald its upcoming album and tour with original frontman David Lee Roth, Van Halen played an intimate club gig Thursday night as a gift to its fans. Well, not its fans -- rather, the media, record company execs, friends, family and Jimmy Fallon. But for everyone who was lucky enough to get into Greenwich Village’s packed Cafe Wha?, it was an exhilarating blast of a show that provided solid evidence that the venerable group hasn’t strayed too far from its bar band roots. 

The choice of the historic 250-capacity venue, where such acts as Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix once appeared, was no accident. It was originally owned by Roth’s 92-year-old uncle Manny, who was introduced to the audience by his clearly emotional nephew.

Performing an 11-song, 75-minute set -- it was supposed to be just 45 minutes, but apparently Roth’s propensity for gabbiness hadn’t been taken into account -- the band was clearly energized by the sweaty intimacy of their surroundings. Not surprisingly, the show featured only vintage material recorded by the original lineup -- nothing recorded with Sammy Hagar or Gary Cherone -- along with one track from the upcoming album. The "new" song, “She’s the Woman,” was a simple, basic hard rock number that sounded like it could have been on Van Halen's debut album. Not surprising given that the band recorded it as part of a demo in 1976.

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With drummer Alex Van Halen pounding out beats like a man possessed, Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie’s son, who replaced Michael Anthony) providing versatile bass riffs and Eddie displaying his guitar god prowess, the band rocked as hard as the club’s sound system would allow. Although Roth’s undermiked voice occasionally showed signs of fraying, his swagger and charisma remain intact.

They came out blazing, with their cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” and proceeded to deliver blistering versions of such hits as “Runnin' With the Devil,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” “Dance the Night Away,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Panama,” “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” and, of course, “Jump” (the familiar synthesizer riff was piped in). The energy only flagged at times during Roth’s patter, which included a seemingly endless monologue about his time spent as an EMT technician in the Bronx.

The rapport between Roth and Eddie, which has ebbed and flowed through the years, was in full display. Both men smiled constantly throughout, and their guitar/vocal duet on “Everybody Wants Some,” with Roth delivering vocal hiccups in tandem with Eddie’s chunky riffs, was a show highlight.

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Superstars have long used the gimmick of playing club shows to drum up publicity, but to see this arena band in a room not much larger than a broom closet was nearly surreal.

"Last time I stood on a stage this low, we had to have the car back by midnight,” Roth joked. "It took us 50 years to get this gig,” he said, referring to when he used to hang out in the club as a child. "It was easier to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

Later, he got more emotional. "This is a temple," he observed. "I'm more nervous about this gig than I would ever be at the Garden."

The band’s new album, A Different Kind of Truth, their first with Roth in 28 years, will be released Feb. 7. The tour kicks off Feb. 18 in Louisville, Ky., with stops at NYC’s Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28 and March 1 and Los Angeles’ Staples Center on June 1.

Set List:

1. "You Really Got Me"

2. "Runnin' with the Devil"

3. "Somebody Get Me a Doctor"

4. "Everybody Wants Some"

5. "She's the Woman"

6. "Dance the Night Away"

7. "Panama"

8. "Hot for Teacher"

9. "Ice Cream Man"

10. "Ain't Talkin Bout Love"

Encore: "Jump"