Live: Van Halen Attracts The Naked, Sweaty Eyeballs To Cafe Wha?


Van Halen
Cafe Wha?
Thursday, January 5

Better than: Listening to David Lee Roth’s Spanish-language version of “That’s Life” at home alone.

The crowd drawn to Macdougal Street in advance of last night’s Cafe Wha? show by the reunited-once-again Van Halen—David Lee Roth on vocals, and the Van Halens Eddie, Alex, and Wolfgang on guitar, drums, and bass, respectively—was large enough to require multiple police barriers up and down the block. People huddled in the cold, hoping to catch a glimpse of the now-40-year-old band; security was tight enough that the fan club members, industry types, and journalists entering the building had to have their hands stamped twice, instead of once.

Inside, the room was humid and packed, with waitresses maneuvering drink-filled trays around the elbows and heads of people craning their necks and waving their cameraphones in order to get a glimpse of the action on stage. There was an excitement in the air—both inside and outside—that felt strangely old-school, like the sort of fervor that would arise in advance of a Midnight Madness sale at Tower Records. Rock stars, even in this age, can do that to people.

Last night Van Halen tried to blow away any last traces of the rancor and bad blood that arose again and again in the years since Roth’s long-ago departure for a solo career, and it mostly succeeded. Cafe Wha?’s crammed setting—which, Roth noted twice, allowed him to stare down many of the crowd members’ “naked, sweaty eyes”—helped; the best of Van Halen’s original material had both the crunch of scuzzy Los Angeles punk and the bombast of arena rock, and the tiny, packed room enhanced both those attributes in a thrilling way. The fleetness inherent in both Eddie’s guitar playing and Alex’s drumming was in full effect last night, even if the songs sounded a bit slowed down from their familiar forms; Alex’s rapidfire drumming on “Hot For Teacher” in particular sounded absolutely blistering, while Eddie’s air-guitar-inspiring licks were in lively conversation with Roth all night.

“She’s The Woman,” the set list’s lone new song, slid in nicely with the rest of the 1984-and-earlier repetoire, with the only nod to current trends a slightly more prominent bassline that added a bit of choogle. (The band’s first album with Roth in 28 years, A Different Kind Of Truth, comes out on February 7; the band’s playing Madison Square Garden on February 28 and March 1.) The backing vocals—so crucial to Van Halen’s party-rock appeal, and provided now by Wolfgang instead of original bassist Michael Anthony—sounded good, too, and were helped by the crowd (even the professionally objective) singing and hooting along. Only “Dance The Night Away” began to unravel a bit, but was saved at the end by a Roth monologue and a quick segue into “Panama.”

Ah, yes. The monologues. Last night’s gig also served as a platform for Roth to show how his entertaining approach had mutated over the years; the space at Cafe Wha? was too small for him, alas, to shimmy down an aisle flanked by bikini-clad ladies or do a high-wire act during “Panama,” so instead he talked every chance he could. And I won’t lie: It was great. (Well, the “Occupy Van Halen” bit at the show’s outset was a little cheesy, but forgivable.) He went on an extended riff on the ethnic breakdown of the Southern California clubs where the band would gig in its earliest days, a blend that necessitated the band learning covers from all over the map; he noted that “Van Halen fans have decided they’ve had a great time three weeks in advance”; and he offered up an extended thank you to his uncle Manny, the original proprietor of Cafe Wha?, who was 92 and in attendance last night. (He got a nice chant as a thank-you gift.)

And two songs in, Roth launched into a monologue that had been sparked by idle wondering about Lady Gaga’s presence (she wasn’t there, but I did spot John McEnroe and Eddie Trunk); this led into him talking about seeing her at Pianos, which eventually turned into a retelling of how he decided to ditch the rock thing and train to become a paramedic in the early ’00s; he noted that he’d gone that route in part because of curiosity about what might lurk behind the windows of those parts of New York City that he’d never been to. “Everybody that you know winds up in your voice,” he said. He sounded serious, a poignant moment in a pretty unlikely environment—but that was quickly leavened by a story about working the EMT beat on New Year’s Eve, and getting half a cupcake as a present to ring in the year. He said, the grin on his face audible in his voice, “I wanna wish you all a half a fuckin’ cupcake for New Year’s.” It was a purely Rothian moment, and that it led into “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” (get it?) was probably no accident.

Critical bias: I watched MTV pretty much every chance I got once it snaked its way into my house, meaning that David Lee Roth’s “lusty vaudevillian” persona shaped my malleable brain in a big way.

Overheard: “Write this down.” (Note to people who want to “help” writers in the wild by making this suggestion: Doing this is kind of annoying! But the words that followed, from a drunk-on-mindblowingness Van Halen superfan, made me forgive him.) “This is like being abducted by aliens… or, no, Van Haliens.”

Random notebook dump: At one point Roth called for a drink, any drink, to be brought to the stage, a request that probably unintentionally recalled his call for “a bottle of anything and a glazed donut… to go” in the opening of the “Yankee Rose” video. Unfortunately the person who complied with his request did not also bring him a pastry.

Set list:
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