New Yorkers are getting a brief break from Lin-sanity this week as Van Halen came to Manhattan to perform two shows at Madison Square Garden, where the storyline shifted from the Knicks to guitar licks.
It’s been more than four years since the band’s last appearance at the venue, although it’s been only two months since Van Halen’s surprise warmup show at Greenwich Village’s tiny Café Wha?, a venue smaller than Van Halen’s current arena stage.
A lot has gone down since the last MSG gig — the band released A Different Kind of Truth, Ed had reconstructive surgery on his hand, and Wolfgang transformed from teenager to adult — but these developments all led to huge improvements in the band’s performance.
While the 22-song set list (plus a drum solo by Alex and guitar solo by Ed) that the band performed Tuesday night, February 28, was similar to the one they played on their 2007-08 tour, songs from the new album (“She’s the Woman,” “Tattoo,” “Chinatown” and “The Trouble With Never”) replaced tracks from Van Halen’s first album, and deep cuts like “Hear About It Later,” “Women In Love” and “Girl Gone Bad” took the place of “And the Cradle Will Rock,” “So This Is Love?” and “Mean Street.”
The band has altered the set list slightly each night on the tour, usually substituting one song for another instead of making wholesale changes like the Grateful Dead or Radiohead.
Besides the opportunity to hear new material and a handful of classic Van Halen songs that the band hasn’t performed for almost 30 years, the main reason even the most casual Van Halen fan shouldn’t miss this tour is Ed’s phenomenal guitar playing, which is as good — if not better — than it’s ever been.
His solo section near the end of the show, which blends “Eruption,” “Spanish Fly” and “Cathedral” is still mind-blowing as Ed unleashes a flurry of tremolo picked and classical-inspired tapped lines with incredible speed and precision. Ed’s solos on “Girl Gone Bad” were also standouts, flowing like astral-projecting Coltrane as notes flew furiously and effortlessly from his fretboard.
Old diehards may still bitch about the absence of Michael Anthony, but Wolfgang has proven to be less of a replacement and more of an enhancement with his growling, percussive bass tone and melodic fills that add a new aggressive vitality to the band’s sound.
Locking in with Alex’s precise drumming (at least it sounded like Alex, although with his dark sunglasses he looked like Link Wray behind the kit), Wolfgang gave the band’s rhythm section a muscular punch that shook the arena like an earthquake.
The fiery unison bass and guitar tapping on “Chinatown” proves that Wolfgang can keep up with his dad, as Ed and Wolfgang’s licks rivaled the intensity of Billy Sheehan and Steve Vai’s performance on David Lee Roth’s “Shy Boy.” Wolfgang’s background harmony vocals (which are not piped-in tapes of Anthony’s vocals, despite persisting Internet troll claims) were consistently solid, especially on “Dance the Night Away” when David Lee Roth apparently chose to sing the melody to an entirely different song.
With this being only the fifth show of the tour, there were a few glitches and most of them involved David Lee Roth, who at times was the weak link in the chain, even if that chain is made of titanium. Roth struggled with the lyrics to most of the new songs, blurting out the infamous “I forgot the fuckin’ words” line during “Chinatown.” The other problem was of a technical nature when Roth’s headset crapped out during “The Trouble With Never” (which should be renamed “The Trouble With Headsets”).
Unlike the previous gig in Chicago where Roth was visibly perturbed with the technical difficulties, Roth kept his cool and performed like a pro, keeping the between-song banter concise and refreshingly humorous and allowing the music to flow almost non-stop.
Despite Roth’s occasional missteps, it’s still great to see him on stage fronting the band again and giving the Van Halen brothers the opportunity to perform several of their greatest classic songs from their first six albums. After all, who wouldn’t prefer hearing “Ice Cream Man” over “Where Eagles Fly”? With Ed playing in peak form, the show is this year’s must-see for any guitarist who has ever wanted to witness his majesty and mystique in the flesh.
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN SET LIST, FEBRUARY 28
You Really Got Me
Runnin’ With the Devil
She’s the Woman
Everybody Wants Some!
Somebody Get Me a Doctor
Hear About It Later
Oh, Pretty Woman
The Trouble With Never
Dance the Night Away
Hot For Teacher
Women in Love
Girl Gone Bad
Ice Cream Man
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love