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Van Halen Rocks Cafe Wha? in New York City

Kevin Mazur, Getty Images

The first time he set foot in Cafe Wha? — a tiny basement space in New York City’s Greenwich Village — David Lee Roth was 7 years old. His uncle Manny ran the joint, and the future Van Halen frontman carved his name into one of the bannisters.

A lot has changed in the half-century since, but Thursday night (Jan. 5), as Roth and the boys commandeered the cramped venue, previewing their upcoming reunion tour with their first public performance since 2008, the singer remained very much a wide-eyed kid. Presiding over a brief greatest-hits set that also included a tune from ‘A Different Kind of Truth,’ the long-awaited comeback album due out Feb. 7, Diamond Dave couldn’t stop beaming.

He couldn’t stop talking, either, but that was to be expected.

“Welcome to Occupy Van Halen!” Roth said to start the show, even though the room was filled with invited journalists, celebrities and industry peeps — not exactly the 99 percent. In fact, the 250 folks sipping complementary beverages represented about 1 percent of the audience that will inevitably turn up next month at Madison Square Garden, one of the many arenas Van Halen will play in the first half of 2012. (In a press release issued after the show, the band announced the dates of a tour that begins Feb. 18 in Louisville, Ky., and ends June 26 in New Orleans.)

While the Cafe Wha? concert was certainly no populist thank-you to fans, it was a chance for the band to get the kinks out. Appropriately enough, they opened with their cover of the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me.’ As Roth pranced around in a newsboy cap and brown overalls, looking more like a train conductor than the spandex rock god of his ’80s heyday, guitarist Eddie Van Halen got right down to dazzling. Toward the end of the song, he and Roth indulged in some scat-and-shred call-and-response, and as Eddie soloed on the next tune, ‘Runnin’ with the Devil,’ Roth turned to the crowd and mouthed the word “perfect.”

Kevin Mazur, Getty Images

And for Van Halen fans, it was. On drums, Eddie’s older brother, Alex, pummeled his kit with as much flash as ever, particularly on the intro to ‘Hot for Teacher.’ Over on bass, the guitarist’s 20-year-old son, Wolfgang, ably filled the role once played by Michael Anthony, though at one point, his youthful exuberance landed him in trouble. As Roth talked at length about his time spent living in New York City’s Lower East Side and working as an EMT, young Wolf plucked a few notes, clearly itching to get on with ‘Somebody Get Me a Doctor.’

“Hang on a second, there, kiddo,” said Roth, willing as ever to clash with dudes named Van Halen.

Although next Tuesday marks the release of ‘Tattoo,’ a single that’s set to arrive with an accompanying video, the band opted to play a different new track, ‘She’s the Woman.’ With its playful sleaze-blues riffage and lusty lyrics, the tune — originally recorded in 1976 but never released — is classic Van Halen.

Before grabbing an acoustic guitar and making like Bob Dylan — who played Cafe Wha? in the early ’60s — on a stripped-down version of ‘Ice Cream Man,’ Roth saluted uncle Manny, the man who laid the marble floor on which everyone was standing. The 92-year-old was in attendance, sitting somewhere near tennis great John McEnroe, who by this time had taken off and his jacket and rolled up his T-shirt sleeves, revealing a bicep tattoo.

“It took us 50 years to get this gig,” Roth said. “I am more nervous about this gig than I would ever be at Madison Square Garden.”

Van Halen’s Jan. 5 Cafe Wha? setlist:

01. ‘You Really Got Me’
02. ‘Runnin’ With the Devil’
03. ‘Somebody Get Me a Doctor’
04. ‘Everybody Wants Some’
05. ‘She’s the Woman’ (previously unreleased)
06. ‘Dance the Night Away’
07. ‘Panama’
08. ‘Hot for Teacher’
09. ‘Ice Cream Man’
10. ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’
11. ‘Jump’
12. ‘Beautiful Girls’
13. ‘Unchained’

Watch ‘Van Halen Play Cafe Wha?’ Video

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