Comedian Dennis Miller once quipped that VAN HALEN was a band that “officially survived
its own rock and roll version of the Dick York/Dick Sargent debacle,” referring
to the late '60s/early '70s sitcom Bewitched and the different actors who played Darrin Stephens during its run. This was before the Gary Cherone era, which Miller would likely regard as the Will Ferrell (Darrin in the 2005 big screen adaptation) of the group; a lot of gloss and even more money was put behind it, but in the end the public ignored it completely.
Thankfully, Dick York – errr, David Lee Roth, is back, and if last night in New York City was any indication, it’s for the long haul. He rejoined brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen for a successful 2007-08 arena tour that felt like the inside of a 1983 Camaro Z28, complete with crushed Schlitz pounders littering the floor and the scent of bunk weed wafting from the seats. Eddie’s son Wolfgang replaced the ousted Michael Anthony on bass, and even with all the change-ups in its cast, plus Russian, Japanese and Indian remakes; I’ll be fucked if I can find a Bewitched parallel for that move.
Times have changed from five years ago, when the mighty VH was subsisting on the benefits
of nostalgia, curiosity, and didn’t do a lick of press. Now, with a new record to pimp -- A Different Kind of Truth drops February 7 -- the outfit is making nice with us journo peeps.
At the tiny Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, owned by Roth’s uncle Manny, a select few of us press-types were invited to check out the retooled edition of the old sports car up close
and personal. According to this long-time fan, the results were astonishing.
Watching unnamed old-guard writers lose their shit in the confines of space that makes the Paradise look like the Garden was one thing (think more a Mid East up, but more deeper than wide). The waitress asking you to hand Roth a tall boy of Jack Daniels was another.
Dressed in tan Cathartt utility overalls, neoprene EMS hoodie and a tweed newsboy cap, Roth followed the Van Halens through the front door of the club, through the audience, and then led them to the stage. They ripped through that vicious translation of “You Really Got Me,” which back in 1978 made everyone forget the Kinks did it first, and followed it up with a backyard classic rock barbeque roll call of “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” and “Everybody Wants Some.”
At that point the crowd was worked beyond pulsating fervor and primed for a new
track. Van Halen delivered, sort of. To casual fans, “She’s the Woman” will be a fresh, fast blues boogie that marks the perfect reentry of a Roth-era VH. But the song is actually from the
1977 Warner Bros. demos, never released officially but heavily bootlegged. The only thing missing from that one is the bridge, which ended up in “Mean Street” from 1981’s Fair Warning, but Eddie dropped a blistering fret blitz in its place, giving hope to this new-fangled edition.
Tensions that split the band apart in the mid-'80s by all accounts have disappeared. Wolfgang looked over at DLR and made the “I’m-dropping-the-low-end-on-some-of-the-greatest-rock-songs-ever” face as many times as he did to his dear old dad.
“Dance the Night Away” morphed into an improv piece where Roth asked for more delay from Frankie the soundman and then mimicked Jim Morrison singing “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s a bit that will likely find its way into his repetitive banter on the upcoming tour (Mohegan Sun March 3, TD Garden March 11) but hilarious in its first go-round.
“Panama,” “Hot for Teacher,” and an improbably authentic “Ice Cream Man,” where Roth called
out his 92-year-old uncle Manny to take a bow, topping it with “I’m more nervous to play here than the Garden.”
That moment cut to the heart of the show; it was something that multiple times was remarked
to be the most important or greatest of Van Halen’s career -– mainly by Roth but
agreed to in the grin and never-ending nods from the perpetually sunglass-clad Alex Van Halen,
who reveled the most in DLR’s tales from back in the day. Sibling Edward, in a V-neck, jeans and New Balance sneakers was his typical toothy grinned self.
Maybe they’ve all grown up and made peace. Maybe we’re all crazy to even entertain that thought might be true. But the fact is Van Halen doesn’t want to be a nostalgia act doomed to go the Journey route with a Filipino cover band singer found on YouTube, and then linking up with in pathetic hopes of appealing to housewives looking to sit on a lawn that
isn’t on their street come summer time.
Roth led the Café Wha? audience through the chorus of “Everybody Wants Some” like it was a new religion. Do the rest of us want some too? Depends on how bewitching A Different Kind of Truth ends up being.
Tickets go on sale for Van Halen with Kool & the Gang (for reals) January 10 for shows at Mohegan Sun March 3 and TD Garden March 11.