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Van Halen @ Cafe Wha?

David Lee Roth smiled one of his “Diamond Dave” smiles and said what everyone crammed into the tiny Cafe Wha? for Thursday night's Van Halen album and tour launch was thinking.

“The last time I stood on a stage this low, we had to have the car back by midnight,” he said.

No room for his trademark highkicks last night – Roth would have hit his head on the basement ceiling. No pyro. No laser shows. No massive screens to magnify Eddie Van Halen's flying fingers during several masterful guitar solos – the lucky ones could see them with their own eyes.

It was just the band – Roth and three Van Halens, Eddie, Alex on drums, and Wolfgang, Eddie's son, on bass – and their music, stripped down to the adrenalized essentials that made these guys (minus 20-year-old Wolfie, of course) Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

“Running With the Devil” had a renewed stomp thanks to the rhythm section, while Eddie Van Halen worked his guitar magic over it. “Dance the Night Away” still sounds like heavy-metal ear candy, even including a nifty bit of a cappella, three-part harmony on the chorus. And “Hot for Teacher” actually sounded extra-feverish.

“She's The Woman” – the new song they unveiled from the forthcoming “A Different Kind of Truth” (Interscope) album, which arrives in stores on Feb. 7 – combined the classic sound of Eddie's chugging guitar with a new bit of Red Hot Chili Peppers-y p-funk-inspired bass. Whether that's how the rest of the new album – Van Halen's first as a band in 14 years and the first with Roth on vocals since the blockbuster (and band-busting) “1984” 28 years ago – remains to be seen.

It's a closely guarded secret – so tightly held that the single “Tattoo” won't be heard until next week and we didn't even get the name of it until after the show last night. But secrets can be fun.

And that actually might be the most important component to last night's Cafe Wha? show. Van Halen looked like it was having fun.

It was a big night for Roth, who said he had been coming to the Cafe Wha? since he was seven years old, when his uncle, Manny Roth, owned it and booked Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and comedians Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Roth said that he carved his initials into one of the banisters as a child.

“It took us 50 years to get this gig,” he joked. “It was easier getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Even when one of Roth's wild, rambling stories – he wanted to meet Lady Gaga, he lived near Pianos, he became an EMT, he was stationed in the North Bronx, he split half a cupcake with two other EMTs on New Year's Eve, oh, hey! Happy New Year! – got a bit too lengthy, they all seemed to take it in stride, with the Van Halens waiting patiently and smiling and then when Wolfgang tried a musical cue to move him along, Roth added, with a smile, “Hold on a second, kiddo.” (He wrapped it up with “It's all apropos... Somebody get me a doctor !”)

After all, for Van Halen, the question hasn't really ever been “Can they play?” It has [almost] always been “Can they play together?”

The answer – which the band's braintrust knew before they trotted them out into a room packed to the low ceiling with about 200 journalists and music industry insiders – was a resounding “Yes!”

What better message to send out there before tickets for the band's national arena tour go on sale Jan. 16. The tour kicks off in Louisville, Ky., on Feb. 18 and is set for two shows at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28 and March 1.

“I'm more nervous about this gig than I ever would be at The Garden,” Roth said. “There's no place to hide up here . . . There's no fake vocals – no fake anything.”

Shortly before the band finished with “Jump,” Roth tried summing up the night for everyone again. “It's one of the best shows in our entire career,” he said. Then, he smiled again.

SETLIST: You Really Got Me / Running With the Devil / Somebody Get Me a Doctor / Everybody Wants Some / She's The Woman / Dance the Night Away / Panama / Hot for Teacher / Ice Cream Man / Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love / Jump

CELEBRITIES SPOTTED: Jimmy Fallon, John McEnroe, The Roots' Kirk Douglas

Tags: Van Halen , David Lee Roth , Eddie Van Halen , Alex Van Halen , Wolfgang Van Halen , Manny Roth , Bob Dylan , Jimi Hendrix , Bill Cosby , Richard Pryor , Red Hot Chili Peppers , Lady Gaga

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