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“It’s like a deadly game of cat and mouse up here,” ad-libbed David Lee Roth during Van Halen’s sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Roth’s campy melodrama was entirely appropriate, given that a few weeks on the reunion circuit have put the group through all the cheeseball intrigue of an episode of Barnaby Jones.

Initial fan reports hailing the shows as “unexpectedly brilliant” soon gave way to leaked YouTube clips in which a possibly tanked Eddie Van Halen seemed to be playing in keys unknown to man. Factor in the still-controversial installation of Eddie’s 16-year-old corpulent spawn, Wolfgang, on bass, and it’s clear why a palpable tenor of reticence underlay the MSG crowd’s beer-drinking and hell-raising. After making us wait half our natural lives for a mere three-quarters reunification, would the once-mighty VH well and truly blow it?

They didn’t, though the heightened anxiety subjected Eddie’s playing to a degree of scrutiny it can no longer withstand, even when unimpaired. Having made his bones as one of the few rock guitarists wise enough to play on top of the beat, he now plays behind it, ahead of it, underneath it – wherever he feels like at a given moment, yet somehow always skittering back into place just in time for the next defining power chord.

Ironically, that barely controlled anarchy was one of a handful of elements that saved the MSG set from rote professionalism. These guys know that their job in 2007 is to sound like the symphonic frontal assault we remember from their records. Hence the multitude of backing vocals that miraculously sprung from only three mouths during show opener “You Really Got Me,” not to mention the offstage keyboards and phantom guitars that arose elsewhere. The wonders of technology have helped elevate overdub-heavy material like “And the Cradle Will Rock” and “Mean Street’” from tunes once played sporadically to standards now simulated nightly.

When it came to making an utterly organic impression, however, the evening was clearly Roth’s. His mostly spot-on lead lines were a surprise even to those of us who have followed his solo career, and are thus aware he spent the last two decades being the only Van Halen there was. Now, honestly singing where once he was content to scat, he’s apparently been smart enough to realize that something, well, musical has to compensate for his diminished physicality. The gravity-defying splits of yore are gone – obviously too much to expect from a guy who made “I’m always hurting” the opening sentence of his 1997 autobiography – though he still performs enough roundhouse kicks to keep him on Chuck Norris’ Christmas-card list. And let’s not forget the communicative power of his leather-and-brocade ensemble, which strongly recalled whichever half of Siegfried and Roy it was that outran the tiger.

Once upon a time, such winking self-display made classic VH the audiovisual analogue to adolescent sexuality, so it’s troubling that the one current member who is underage – that would be our pal Teen Wolf – is the one who exhibits the least mojo. At least he’s beginning to cultivate something resembling a stage presence, at one point even testing the tensile strength of the band’s illuminated catwalk by taking a leisurely stroll past the suckers who shelled out for Gold Circle seats.

The urge to crack Jenny Craig and/or rehab jokes thankfully subsided whenever the music reached one of its periodic crescendos of hyperactivity, as in a landmark pile-on like “Romeo Delight.” Call it reassuring, or maybe downright sad, but no one has even come close to beating VH at their own excessive game. Now as then, their only real competition is their own capacity for self-destruction (which explains why you’re reading a review of a New York concert in this newspaper: No Central Florida dates have yet been announced, and it’s uncertain if the band will make it to its Feb. 12, 2008, Fort Lauderdale show before killing themselves or each other). For now, it’s enough for this Manhattan correspondent to report that Van Halen got through it without disgracing themselves, and managed to reach a few moments of genuine abandon, while making it at least look like they knew what they were doing. Come to think of it, they’re more like teenage sex than ever.

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