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Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the opening act at the Van Halen show on July 16 at Fiddler's Green, set the tenor for the evening early on. A student at the School of Hot Licks whose flowing blond hair gives him the look of a lost Hanson brother, Shepherd can play, and play well; his technical command of the guitar is impressive. But if his fifty minutes in the spotlight featured even a nanosecond of originality, I must have missed it. Lead singer Noah Hunt's throaty warbling and enthusiastic Oh, yeahs were awesome--and stereotypical (if you ever decide to put together a Foghat cover band, call him first), and Shepherd's fretboard showboating never strayed from the tried and true. His version of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," for example, was a clone job of which Dolly the Sheep would heartily approve; the only times Shepherd strayed from the composition's blueprint were when he threw in quotes from other Hendrix tunes.

The throng at Fiddler's (sizable, but far short of a sellout) heartily approved of Shepherd's impressions--and why not? There were quite a few thirtyish/fortyish women present, many of whom insisted upon wearing halter tops and the like several years after it was strictly advisable, but the crowd was dominated by dudes who'd been on board the Van Halen bandwagon since the days when David Lee Roth was first making egomania safe for the masses. In other words, it was the classic rock demographic, and all its members wanted was to hear the old songs done the way they remembered them.

They almost got their wish--but not quite. Eddie Van Halen took the stage against a wall of growling guitar, and within seconds it was clear that he and his longtime cohorts, drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, weren't rusty. A lot of aging performers allow the tempos of tunes from their back catalogue to flag when reproducing them live; it's as if they fear that rendering the numbers at their original speeds will be too much for their graying fan base. But not these guys: Popular faves like "Dance the Night Away" and "Why Can't This Be Love" rocketed out of the gates, and they maintained their pace all the way to the finish line. Moreover, Eddie was supremely animated, hopping around with the enthusiasm of an alcoholic at a beer-tasting festival, and both Alex and Anthony matched his exuberance. Perhaps it was simply that they were enjoying the opportunity to dip into smashes from the Roth era, which Roth's first replacement, Sammy Hagar, refused to do. But whatever the reason, they seemed legitimately happy to be on the boards again.

The problem, however, was that the singer with them wasn't Roth or even Hagar, but Gary Cherone. The former frontman for Extreme, a decent but largely forgotten proto-metal combo, Cherone isn't talentless; he's capable of hitting more notes than Roth ever could, and he's no more histrionic than Hagar--and considerably less of a blowhard. But he had absolutely zero chemistry with his new cohorts. Visuals had something to do with it: Whereas the three Van Halen vets were clad in appropriate bar-band attire, Cherone wore a black suit coat that made him look like a Melrose Place character whose plot lines you never bother to follow. A wiry, diminutive wood sprite of a fellow, he worked hard to earn some attention, prancing and leaping and throwing himself to the floor on a regular basis. But these efforts came across more as desperation than inspiration, and because his fellow musicians treated him like someone to be tolerated or ignored rather than embraced, the audience took much the same attitude. Cherone wasn't entirely blameless in this regard: His banter never went beyond "How ya doin', Colorado?" cliches, and while his voice was reminiscent of Hagar's, it was even more colorless, if that's possible. When he asked the ticket-buyers to sing along with one ditty, a man behind me shouted out, "We'll sound a lot better than you!"

The complaints lessened when warhorses like "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" were trotted out; the band was so tight that Cherone's weak-ass approximations of Diamond Dave weren't so glaring. ("Right Now," a Pepsi spot from the Hagar period, didn't fare nearly as well. With its pre-taped keyboards, it sounded like something by Mannheim Steamroller.) Also arresting was Eddie's solo spot, a mini-"Eruption" in which he displayed his mastery of harmonics and overtones. But the slew of tunes from Van Halen 3, the group's first disc with Cherone, was flatter than Kate Moss, and Cherone was far too much of a lightweight to either push or challenge Eddie in the ways his predecessors had. Eddie's undeniably the man now, and Van Halen is less fun and interesting because of it. Change isn't always good, you know.

Of course, Van Halen boosters are different than they used to be, too. I was seated near the front of Fiddler's second reserved section, and I was stunned to discover that most people near me wanted to sit through the concert. In fact, when one man dared to stand up, he was jeered mercilessly by the twenty folks behind him. When he finally sat down, in the midst of an interminable drum solo, his critics responded with the biggest cheer of the night. That, my friends, is rock and roll, old style.

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