The Cafe Wha? sits onMacDougal StreetinNew York’swild WestVillage. On its stage a young Jimmy James – soon to return to his original surname of Hendrix – once showed off his guitar prowess; and on this chill January night, almost a half-century later, his neighboring branch in the family tree of six-string innovation is prepared to dazzle and display. Edward Van Halen wrenches his whammy bar and in the space of an instant covers all known frequencies of the human auditory spectrum, flurries it with a cascade of notes and things-that-might-be-notes and squeals and howls and feedbacks and then steps aside so that his partner-in-crime, David Lee Roth, can do the same with his leering voice.
Then they grin; an infectious winking of the eye and ear, it’s the gift that Van Halen brought to the lump of magma known as metal. Before VH, it seemed the heavier the band, the more dour they must appear on stage, as if the molten weight of the music required no hint of irony, only the steely resolve needed to play this alloyed music.
But from the beginning, working a SoCal circuit from Gazzari’s Teen Dance Club to the Golden West Ballroom, finally graduating to the Whisky A Go Go and the Starwood in the beginning of 1977, Van Halen took the opposite tack. Maybe their role model was Led Zeppelin, minus the metaphysics and faeries, or Aerosmith; or in the year of the two sevens clash, they aspired to become the anti-punk, celebrating living large and living it up.
They were an ultimate party band, and all were invited. And as their local renown grew, the group – you know the history, but let’s give a shout-out to original bassist Michael Anthony and Eddie’s brudder, Alex, who’s still currently on the cannons – readied to take on the world. Their debut, produced by the under-recognized Ted Templeman, featured Van Halen’s version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which shook that venerable classic and turned it inside-out (“Me Really Got You”); and the Vesuvian “Eruption,” showcasing Eddie’s astonishing neck-strangling and sending an entire generation of guitarists back to the woodshed.
The hits followed, and overviewing them all in one lump sum shows a remarkable range of hook, pick-up line and slinker, whether the rousing shout-out of “Panama,” the lascivious “Hot for Teacher,” the truth-be-told of “Everybody Wants Some,” or the engaging synth-rock of “Jump.” The last is probably as far as the group ever diverged from their original template – thankfully there are no power ballads to be found anywhere in their oevure – and it really does embody the running-with-the-devil descriptive that best captures their lasting appeal: exuberant! Even on the tiny Cafe Wha? stage (in terms of lineal history, David Lee is a nephew of the club’s original owner, Manny Roth) there’s no way one can resist being pulled into the joyful noise that is Van Halen at its rolling rockiest.
The group’s heyday was from 1978 through 1984, which is when Roth left the band amid a party atmosphere that hung many core VH members out to dry. David Lee tried a solo career, but an emphasis on choreographed big-screen theatrics cut him off from Van Halen’s more elemental fans. Van Halen itself tried replacing him, and the Sammy Hagar era comes off as an honorable interlude, with a great sing-along in “Why Can’t This Be Love” and a frontman whose taste for good tequila and breaking the speed limit allowed the group to stand tall alongside theL.A.hair-metal subculture they helped sprout.Reunionrumors with Roth continually cropped up, though never got further than a backstage punch-up at an awards show in the mid ’90s, a no-show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, and live performances in 2007/8.
But hey, what family doesn’t fight? After a while, blood coagulates thicker than water. With Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, now on bass, the family Van Halen is open-minded enough to once again make room for their illegitimate sibling. Cavorting on the Cafe Wha? stage, there is little doubt that this reunion is more about entwined roots than which tree gets to stand the tallest.
It’s not just Eddie and David’s show. Alex has a flair for cymbal work that moves his drumming outside the sub-basement, and Wolfgang combines the stolid presence and fundamental backbone of Anthony. But when Eddie and David trade riffage, the chemical compound that is H2O – Halen to Overdrive – becomes most apparent. Yes, there is a new album, titled A Different Kind of Truth, but really, it’s the same old Van Halen, pound for pounding. If opening song “Tattoo” reminds of what made the band great – a romping Eddie solo and David caterwauling – along with other signature slabs like “China Town,” “Blood and Fire,” and “Honeybabysweetiedoll” sounding like you’ve been there before, well, that’s the point. Classic rock, so it proudly is. Welcome baaacck!