NEW YORK — There are the traditional ways that bands announce their comeback, and then there’s the Van Halen way, in which you take over a hole-in-the-wall New York City club, cram it with every music writer in the biz (and some celebs, too) and practically burn the place to the ground with a hit-packed 70-minute set. Oh, and just to ensure maximum good times, you pick up the bar tab, too. For everybody.
On Thursday night in NYC, VH hyped A Different Kind of Truth — their first album with original frontman David Lee Roth in almost 30 years — and their massive tour that kicks off next month. The fiery, fierce, fantastic show took place at the venerable Café Wha?, the Greenwich Village club that has played host to the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. In an apparent nod to the place’s folk roots, Roth even strummed an acoustic guitar for a minute, which was about as muted as things got.
From the second they strode onto the tiny stage — Roth in overalls and a newsboy cap, Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang Van Halen in workman-like blue jeans and T-shirts — it was one massive party. And not just because the booze was free.
Roth joked “Welcome to Occupy Van Halen, everybody!” and then they were off, launching into a cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which was stretched out to allow Roth and Eddie Van Halen to trade vocal shouts and guitar licks. Their classic “Running With the Devil” had the crowd (which included everyone from Jimmy Fallon to Roth’s uncle Manny, who owned the Wha? Until 1988) losing their collective minds.
That song wrapped with Roth planting a kiss on bassist (and Eddie’s son) Wolfgang’s cheek, and sent the dynamic frontman into a lengthy monologue. He regaled the crowd with stories about his time as a New York City EMT and pleaded with the “guys from the press” to introduce him to Lady Gaga. He then fired into back-to-back burners “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” and “Everybody Wants Some.”
“The last time I stood onstage this low, we had to have the car back by midnight,” Roth said, a comment that highlighted what made the show so special: Not only was it the smallest show VH had played in decades, but it was unquestionably one of the happiest. For a band whose past is so dotted with acrimony, everybody on stage looked like they were having an absolute blast, joking between songs, smiles plastered to their faces. And, yes, that mood was matched by the folks in attendance.
Up next was the new (though technically more than 30-year-old) “She’s the Woman,” which, in a welcome break from reunited-rock-legend tradition, was actually kind of killer. Following it were colossally surging smashes like “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” and, of course, the set-closing “Jump,” which sent the crowd back out onto the Village streets deliriously happy — and slightly inebriated. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of night, and seemingly everyone realized it, especially Van Halen. They looked great and sounded even better, a reminder of their prominence in rock’s all-time pantheon and a promise that this new tour is a can’t-miss. And boy do they know how to throw a party.