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As Van Halen drew “She’s The Woman” —a tune on the quartet’s Feb. 7 album, “A Different Kind of Truth”—to a close during the group’s secret show Wednesday night on the Henson Studios lot in Los Angeles, Eddie Van Halen crossed behind David Lee Roth so the two ended up face to face when the song came to its cold stop.
Standing only a few feet apart, they looked at each other and both broke into wide, maniacal grins, so obviously delighted to be back on stage and in front of an adoring audience.
And so it went for much of the hour-long show. As rough and ragtag as some spots were, there was never a moment when it felt like the band, rounded out by Van Halen’s son Wolfgang on bass and his brother Alex Van Halen on drums, was phoning it in. For all the drama and demons that have chased the group during its fractured 40 years off stage, the state of the Van Halen union felt strong when they stood on stage together.
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Like the Jan. 5 show at New York’s Cafe Wha?, Wednesday's concert lasted just long enough, was for a very small, industry-only audience—around 250—and, most importantly, highlighted what first single “Tattoo” from “Truth” has not —Van Halen remains a supremely entertaining live act.
Of course, it helps when you have a front man as engaging as Roth, who simply comes alive on stage. He threw every fiber of his body into each song, whether displayed through the still enviably high leg kicks (really impressive for a dude in his mid-50s), the limber hip shakes, or just a general showmanship that combines a carnival barker with Liberace, and is sprinkled with liberal doses of his own Diamond Dave dazzle dust.
The band performed on a riser that formed a horseshoe around the venue and Roth amply worked all three sides, leaning over and waving and flirting with the crowd, at one point telling a woman, “I’d still be in home room if you’d been there,” as he mugged during “Hot for Teacher.”
Roth’s once-pyrotechnic voice is still capable of great yelps and screams, if not quite as readily or quite as dramatically as 30 years ago. It’s still powerful, even if he had occasional issues with staying on tune. At least there was certainly no doubt that he was singing live.
In these small confines, it was possible to watch Eddie Van Halen up close. It there was any possible distraction from Roth’s constant hijinks, it was Van Halen’s flying fingers, as nimble and dextrous as always in a way that simply defied credulity. Rooted in one spot, Van Halen barely worked up a sweat, grinning from ear-to-ear while he played, especially during a smoldering solo on “Unchained.” On the group’s last tour in 2007 with Roth, there had been the occasional cancelled dates and Van Halen’s health had often been in question, but he seemed fit as a fiddle and raring to go on Wednesday.
Between Roth and Eddie Van Halen, there’s no room for any more flash, and Wolfgang and Alex wisely ground the whole enterprise. Wolfgang’s bass playing is perfectly proficient, and while his presence and backing vocals don’t match those of his predecessor, Michael Anthony, he certainly held his own. Alex reliably and steadily pounded away, especially on “Runnin’ With the Devil.”
Unlike the Cafe Wha? show, which only featured one track from “A Different Kind of Truth,” the band’s first new studio album with Roth in 28 years, Wednesday’s performance also threw in “Tattoo” and “The Trouble With Never,” a bluesy, swampy number. While it’s safe to say that neither will be Van Halen classics, they fit in well beside the band’s biggest hits.
Van Halen closed with “Jump,” accompanied by scantily-clad show girls, a drum line, and exploding confetti. It was as woolly and wild and as gloriously fun as you could hope it to be. Pure joy.
To bottom line it: If you’ve been wondering if it’s worth shelling out the money for tickets for the new tour, which starts Feb. 18, here’s the answer: If—at any point in your life—you were a Van Halen fan, then absolutely yes. They’re bringing a party to town and David Lee Roth is leading the parade.
Van Halen’s Henson Studios set list:
“You Really Got Me”
“Runnin’ With The Devil”
“The Trouble With Never”
“Everybody Wants Some”
“She’s The Woman”
“Dance The Night Away”
“Hot For Teacher”
“Ice Cream Man”
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”
Are you excited to see Van Halen on tour?
Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitFixMelinda