"The best gig of all time": What happened when Van Halen played a secret show at a tiny New York club

Van Halen onstage at Cafe Wha?
(Image credit: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage via Getty Images)

On January 5, 2012, David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen and Wolfgang Van Halen played a secret show at the intimate Cafe Wha? in New York City. The event coincided with the announcement of Van Halen's 2012 North American tour and the February 7 release of their new album, A Different Kind of Truth. Broadcaster Eddie Trunk was one of just 250 people lucky enough to get a ticket, so we asked him to review the show.


For once in David Lee Roth’s storied career, his signature “look at all the people here tonight” line wouldn’t have made sense. At this mostly media and industry event, “all the people” consisted of 250 or so invited guests in a venue that would make your basement seem roomy.

The intimate showcase setting of Greenwich Village’s Cafe Wha? has played host to many singer-songwriters for decades now. The stage is barely elevated, the performance room located in the building’s basement, the PA more suited to an acoustic duo.

So what on earth were the mighty Van Halen doing playing this joint? The band chose this most unusual of settings to serve notice to the media that they are relaunching, once again with Roth on vocals, for a new album and tour – the first full album of new material with DLR since the band’s now classic 1984 album of that year.

The event was put together quickly over the Christmas break. The venue was chosen because it’s owned by Roth’s 92-year-old uncle Manny Roth, who is in attendance. Throughout the 65-minute performance, Roth jokes about how this is the toughest booking in the band’s history, and that he’s much more nervous playing at his uncle’s place – where, as a seven-year-old, he had carved his name in the railings and once watched a gig by an aspiring young songwriter by the name of Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan, but you knew that) – than at Madison Square Garden. And it all seems very genuine as Roth leads Eddie, Alex and Wolfgang Van Halen through a string of the band’s vintage hits.

Van Halen onstage at Cafe Wha?

(Image credit: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage via Getty Images)

At 8.15pm, as drinks flow from the free bar and guests jockey for the best sight lines the unmistakable sound of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar kicks off set opener You Really Got Me.

It’s easy to see this is going to be a very loose and raw Van Halen show, with the band doing an extended break-down in the middle of the song, Roth ad-libbing throughout. From there it’s straight into Running With The Devil followed by a very long and rambling dialogue by Roth, that includes a lengthy overview of his experiences and time working as an emergency medical worker in New York City, seeing Lady GaGa early in the clubs, and much more. His storytelling goes on so long at one point that Eddie tries to move him along by starting the next song. But Roth won’t be moved: “Hold on now fellas,” the singer says, “let me finish this.” But it’s all done with a smile, Eddie shooting the crowd a look as if to say: “Here we go again”.

From there it’s into personal highlights Somebody Get Me A Doctor, Everybody Wants Some and the sole new track of the night, She’s The Woman, a mid-tempo rocker that many in the audience reckon is actually a slight rewrite of an early Van Halen song. Somewhat surprisingly, instead of the album’s lead-off single, Tattoo, She’s The Woman is all we hear from the upcoming album A Different Kind Of Truth.

Roth continues jumping in between songs with various stories, pulling drinks off waitresses’ trays, and even doing impressions of how Jim Morrison would sound singing Led Zeppelin. It’s all in good fun, and very much in the classic Diamond Dave persona, only without the wardrobe (tonight he’s decked out in brown overalls and a cap), or a mega-PA, light show and 20,000 people.

Roth comments that this is as real and stripped-down as VH gets, with nothing to hide and no backing vocals on tape (something the band were largely accused of during the Roth reunion tour of 2007, when even though Michael Anthony was not with them his voice seemed to be). And it’s exactly that: raw, real, in-your-face and flat-out fun. The ultimate party rock band
playing in a basement club for a couple of hundred people.

Eddie Van Halen onstage at Cafe Wha?

(Image credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage via Getty Images)

Eddie Van Halen, who played well on the Roth reunion but was a mess a few years earlier on the Hagar outing, is spot-on and seems healthy and happy. Hanging toward the back of the small stage most of the night, he lets rip the game-changing licks and solos that influenced millions. Brother Alex, sitting behind what for him is a modest kit, continues to prove that he is one of rock’s most underrated drummers.

Now approaching his 21st birthday, Eddie’s son Wolfgang does a fine job on bass and backing vocals, but it would be a lie to say Michael Anthony is not sorely missed on that side of the stage. Bridges have been repaired with Roth, but without the amiable Anthony (an enormous part of the classic Van Halen sound and persona) holding down the bottom end and belting out the high vocal parts it can never be the full, proper reunion that fans still crave.

In one of his many reflective moments Roth tells stories about the band’s early Southern California club years, Eddie and Alex laugh and nod, while Wolfie can only listen and learn. It’s a cool dynamic to see a Van Halen jamming with his dad, but Michael Anthony should be in this band.

Dance The Night Away, Panama, Hot For Teacher, Ice Cream Man and Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love are among the many iconic tracks played before Roth announces that there will not be an encore, and cues the synth intro to Jump. The set-list taped to the monitor has Beautiful Girls and Unchained as the final two songs, but they don’t get played.

As the evening ends, the singer thanks the small audience for what he calls “the best gig of all time”, and with that the band duck out of the side door and vanish. A venue a bit less packed and with a punchier sound system would have been better, but this night really seemed be about more than the successful relaunch of Van Halen; more about Roth, his love for his uncle, this venue, New York City in general and, most importantly, his band.

A truly special night.

Eddie Trunk

Eddie Trunk is a satellite and syndicated radio/TV personality with a daily show on SiriusXM. His career began more than 40 years ago with a rock and metal show on New Jersey's WDHA, and he's since worked for Megaforce Records – where he earned executive producer credits with acts including Anthrax, Manowar, Overkill, King's X and Ace Frehley – and hosted Friday Night Rocks and Saturday Night Rocks for WNEW in New York City, as well as Metal Mania and That Metal Show on VH1 Classic. Eddie is also the author of Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Vol 1 & 2.