Remember When: Van Halen Reunited with David Lee Roth for a New York City Club Gig

Once rock legends get famous, it’s rare to see them perform in an intimate venue ever again. But when they do it can generate great press and elicit elation from devoted fans, if they are lucky enough to get in. After all, seeing a beloved band go back to their club roots makes people nostalgic. The Rolling Stones did so last year when they promoted their new album Hackneyed Diamonds by playing Racket in New York City. Motley Crue and their new guitarist John 5 did it earlier this month at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.

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And back in January 2012, Van Halen played Cafe Wha? in New York’s West Village to celebrate the impending release of their album A Different Kind of Truth—their first studio LP with original frontman David Lee Roth in 28 years—and their forthcoming tour.

Being among the 250 people invited to witness the small stage spectacle certainly made it a special occasional for fans and band alike. “It took us 50 years to get this gig,” casually dressed frontman David Lee Roth joked with the crowd before he launched into the acoustic intro to “Ice Cream Man.” “It was easier to get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”

Uncle Manny

Thankfully, Van Halen had a good “in”—Roth’s 92 year-old Uncle Manny, who was in attendance, owned the joint. However, the famous frontman admitted it was a little nerve-racking to play such an intimate gig. There were no stage clothes, sprawling stage sets, flashy pyrotechnics, or stacks of amps to hide behind. But one thing was certain: Whether they played an arena or a small venue like Cafe Wha?, Roth, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, and bassist Wolfgang Van Halen could pull off a solid, energetic show. They rocked the house of journalists, industry insiders, and notable guests like Jimmy Fallon, John McEnroe, and Patty Smyth. To their credit, the quartet did not try to blow out people’s eardrums. It was loud but not thunderous.

In front of our “naked, steaming eyes,” as Roth put it, the band unleashed an 11-song set offering a solid cross section of hits from the classic Van Halen era—they opened with “You Really Got Me” and closed with “Jump”—and a new “vintage” song called “She’s the Woman” that dated back to that time period. It sounded good and in sync with the other tunes they curated for the show. That tracked as a little over half of A Different Kind of Truth was reworked demo songs from the late ‘70s and early 80s.

Tight Quarters

Van Halen played a tight, inspired show at Cafe Wha? despite the confines of a small stage. Alex was crammed behind a stripped-down kit with just a snare, hi-hat, one kick drum, two toms and two cymbals. Showing his prowess on a smaller drum set, he got creative when he played on a pipe behind him during the intro to “Dance the Night Away.” Wolfgang agilely handled his bass and backing vocal duties. Eddie still let rip with riffs and solos galore, still as dextrous as ever on the frets, and David was the expected ringmaster of ceremonies, spinning tales between the songs. Admittedly, he strained to hit certain notes while handling others fine, but he had always walked that line between speaking and singing. Many fans later noted during the first leg of the tour that he struggled at times.

But no one was complaining this night. The chance to see Van Halen return to the type of venue they cut their teeth in—and keep the crowd engaged and ecstatic—was great fun. With no disrespect to Wolfgang, who had matured as a musician since his first tour with the band in 2007, it still would have been great to see Michael Anthony return. His trademark vocal harmonies were always an integral part of the band’s sound.

Playing this small venue was a smart way to promote A Different Kind of Truth and its world tour. The media went ablaze with the announcement of this small, invitation-only gig in NYC. The Roth family connection to the club added a human-interest element to the story, on top of the fact the group started out playing bars and house parties in Southern California back in the ’70s. It was a full circle moment that attendees won’t forget.

The Van Halen setlist from Cafe Wha?:

“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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Photo by Frazer Harrison/WireImage

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