Live photos/review: Van Halen at MSG

David Lee Roth & Co. take a victory lap.

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  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

  • Photograph: Jon Klemm

Photograph: Jon Klemm

Van Halen gets called out as the pinnacle of '80s rock bombast, but as the band showed at Madison Square Garden last night—the first of two shows in support of way-better-than-expected comeback LP A Different Kind of Truththere really isn't a lot of excess to what it does. The quartet plays bare-bones rock & roll, livened up by a few gonzo customizations: Eddie Van Halen's wildly inventive shredding, his brother Alex's tap-dancing-elephant double-bass prowess and the vaudevillian preening of classic-era frontman David Lee Roth, back in the fold since 2007.

Roth is a born showman, and he made the most of his MSG star turn. He entered twirling a b staff (the kind Donatello wields in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and ended the show by waving a giant checkered flag. A mini wooden dance floor at the front of the stage provided a generous surface for all manner of sliding, shimmying, crouching, high-kicking and, on a few memorable instances, crotch-grabbing from the surprisingly svelte, spry vocalist, and a headset mike assured that all limbs were free to abet the mugging. Roth's high jinks were rarely anything other than charming (even when he gauchely mimed deferent bows during Truth highlight "China Town"). His performance style is hammy but also classic: It actually feels more natural coming from Roth's 56-year-old self than its twentysomething counterpart, and more importantly, it's a welcome antidote to the cheesy surfer-dude-isms of the singer's mid-'80s--mid-'90s replacement, Sammy Hagar.

The set list zipped between new and old songs, and neither had the advantage. Truth's "She's the Woman" swung immensely, rivaling the rotund shuffle of the classic "Everybody Wants Some!!" The gritty gallop of "China Town" balanced out fun fluff like "(Oh) Pretty Woman." Even new single "Tattoo," a dud on the album, sounded peppy and warm, enough that during the set's all-vintage home stretch (including "Hot for Teacher," "Panama" and, logically, a "Jump" encore, complete with confetti cannon), some 2012 material would've been welcome.

In case you're wondering, the show was gloriously Van Hagar--free, which had to have surprised at least a few unsupecting dates waiting patiently for "Right Now" or "Why Can't This Be Love." The only pacing missteps came late in the set, as when Roth took an ill-timed acoustic-guitar break (a lead-in to the blues cover "Ice Cream Man"), during which he waxed poetic about his dogs and livestock. Still later, Eddie's obligatory guitar solo—part squalling cacophony, part crystalline sound object, with liberal tapping on display—dazzled, but it felt like an anticlimax. 

The band was at its best when everyone was working together, with fully capable new bassist and backing vocalist Wolfgang Van Halen (Eddie's son, a member since '06) joining his dad and uncle to pound out a big-bottomed groove like "Runnin' with the Devil," while Roth played the model MC and flaunted his elastic, undiminshed pipes. At moments like this, you glimpsed Van Halen's initial appeal: The band was the Led Zeppelin for the party-time '80s, taking emotional cues from bubblegum '60s pop rather than from the tortured Delta moaners that inspired Plant, Page & Co. With Roth reenlisted, Van Halen represents the antithesis of mainstream rock's dour post-Cobain period. Much like Kool & the Gang, whose sprightly opening set made no concession to the past quarter century of R&B, the new-model Van Halen isn't dipping its toe in to test the water; it's launching itself in with a lovably boorish Will Ferrell--style cannonball.

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Set list:

You Really Got Me 
Runnin' with the Devil 
She's the Woman 
Romeo Delight 
Tattoo 
Everybody Wants Some!! 
Somebody Get Me a Doctor 
China Town 
Hear About It Later 
(Oh) Pretty Woman 
[Drum solo] 
Unchained 
The Trouble with Never 
Dance the Night Away 
I'll Wait 
Hot for Teacher 
Women in Love 
Girl Gone Bad 
Beautiful Girls 
Ice Cream Man 
Panama 
[Guitar solo] 
Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love 
Jump 

 

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