Live Report: Van Halen Occupies Café Wha? in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village

Crowds of people held back by metal barricades and cops has become a common sight on the streets of Manhattan lately, but on Thursday night, January 5, the hordes were not protesting Wall Street but rather hoping for a chance to join the 200 or so journalists, record label execs, and celebrities crammed into Greenwich Village’s tiny Café Wha? where Van Halen performed a steamy, action-packed one-hour set.

“Welcome to occupy Van Halen!” singer David Lee Roth shouted as the band started the show with “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks cover that originally introduced Van Halen to the masses when they rush-released it to radio prior to their 1978 debut album. The set that followed was 100 percent classic Roth-era Van Halen with a twist—a performance of the “new” song “She’s the Woman,” which the band first recorded for demos produced by Gene Simmons back in 1976. Whether “She’s the Woman” appears on Van Halen’s upcoming album, A Different Kind of Truth, scheduled for release on February 7, still remains to be seen, but it was exhilarating to hear the band tapping into its catalog of previously unreleased classic gems.

The performance was as stripped-down, raw, and real as it gets, with Ed standing in front of three EVH 4x12 cabinets, Alex perched behind a kick, snare, and two-tom drum kit, and Wolfgang playing through a EVH 5150 III/Fender Super Bassman rig. Wolfgang annihilated Internet troll rumors that his performances are taped, singing immaculate background harmonies and attacking his bass with youthful exuberance, professional precision, and tasteful melodic fills that were reminiscent of John Entwistle at his prime. Ed’s performance was simply perfect, with his characteristic classic “brown” sound back in full force, his tapped lines, harmonic chimes, and squeals emanating effortlessly from his fingers. Even on a stripped down kit Alex drove the band with the drive and rumble of a V12 engine, locking in with Wolfgang on grooves tighter than a Chihuahua’s bunghole.

Roth, dressed in camel-colored Carhartt overalls and a wool newsboy cap, worked the crowd like a seasoned professional frontman, interjecting anecdotes into the middle of songs, making eye contact with every fan, and performing playful call and response banter with Ed’s guitar. The band mostly tolerated Roth’s awkward, rambling five-minute monologue about Lady Gaga, the Bronx projects, and half a cupcake between “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” although Wolfgang thumped his bass impatiently at one point to remind him that people wanted to hear tunes, not talk. Roth’s heartfelt words about the venue, which once was owned by his 92-year-old Uncle Manny who was in attendance, were touching and proved that although the band has become unimaginably successful they’ve never forgotten their humble roots.

  • The few who managed to get inside Café Wha? will likely never forget the night as well. The entire club is probably half the size of Van Halen’s arena stage, and even fans in the back corners felt as if they were sitting on stage with the band. Roth said he was more nervous performing here than he was at Madison Square Garden, and with fans waving drinks under his nose as he tightrope-walked the edge of the stage it was easy to believe him.
  • As a prelude to Van Halen’s upcoming tour, which starts February 18 in Lousiville, Kentucky, and currently extends until June 26 in New Orleans, the gig verified that the upcoming shows are not to be missed. The band’s chemistry is better than it’s ever been, with a genuine camaraderie that probably hasn’t existed since the first few months when Roth hooked up with the Van Halen brothers and an injection of youthful energy and excitement added by Wolfgang’s blossoming talents. Although 2012 is just getting underway, it’s proving to be an exciting year for music and one that will likely be dominated by Van Halen’s incredible return to form.

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

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Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.