Van Halen firing on all cylinders in concert

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- As with any Van Halen tour, there are questions.

Have the hip surgeries and tongue cancer endured by Eddie Van Halen hindered his ability to perform and sing backup?

Can David Lee Roth still spin like a ballerina on acid and yelp those high notes?

Will Eddie’s 21-year-old son, Wolfgang, be a worthy replacement for original bassist Michael Anthony on Wolfie’s second go-around with the team?

Does Alex Van Halen ever smile behind his massive drum kit?

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And, most importantly, does the Van Halen brand -- the Roth years -- still sustain, or will this be another reunion attempt that ultimately disappoints fans?

At a recent show at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Van Halen (the band) cranked out a two-hour set that ably mixed nostalgia with the contemporary, kick-starting the proceedings with “Unchained” and "Runnin' With the Devil" and sliding in the new “She's the Woman” shortly into the concert.

On this night, Roth struggled with some high notes, masking his inability to reach them with a lot of whoops and car salesman grins.

But hasn’t Roth’s greatest appeal always been his shticky stage presence? That hasn’t diminished, as he flitted about in a satin aqua shirt -- a splash of color in an otherwise black and white onstage world -- sliding across a specially slicked patch of flooring and unleashing a few trademark karate kicks.

While the performance area is a clean, open space dotted only with the band’s usual array of speakers and monitors, the black and white video screen that runs the length of the stage is a marvel -- and a helpful aid for those in the nosebleed sections.

Roth, whose mug made plenty of slow-motion appearances on that screen, might not have even been in the same zip code as the key of “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” but even his gaffes were infinitely entertaining, and with Wolfgang going skyward with his background vocals on that song and “Hear About It Later,” fans seemed eager to forgive.

Clearly, the heavy lifting on this tour -- at least, vocally -- lies with Eddie’s son, all grown up and a respectable fill-in for Anthony, both as a bassist and a high-range singer.

While Van Halen classics such as “Everybody Wants Some,” “Dance the Night Away” and their punchy version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” kept the mostly middle-aged crowd standing and fist-pumping, a small chunk of the show featured songs from “A Different Kind of Truth.”

Fans have waited so long for this release -- 14 years since the last Van Halen album and 28 years since the last full-length recording with Roth -- that the band would be remiss not to play some of the new tunes.

First single “Tattoo” was framed by spidery lighting rigs and massive doses of Eddie’s oft-imitated hammering technique, which endures as his musical thumbprint. And during the sinewy groove of “She’s the Woman,” the shaggy-haired guitarist grinned like a frat boy while coaxing unnatural sounds from his instrument.

Could it be that the great Eddie Van Halen is finally at peace with his rock god status? He certainly looks better than he has in years -- healthy, happy and musically nimble -- and even seemed to enjoy some playful onstage interaction with Roth.

As for Alex Van Halen, he is still one of rock music’s most impressive drummers. Between his shorter-than-usual but still potent drum solo played to a Latin track, and the engine-revving double bass drum action that opens “Hot for Teacher” (which he makes look effortless), the eldest Van Halen onstage remains the meaty ying to his brother’s fleet-fingered yang.

And, yes, he even unveiled a small smile -- a common occurrence among everyone onstage.

Though it’s one of the oddest billings in recent memory, show openers Kool & the Gang turned out a brisk, seamless set, barely pausing for breath during their 45-minute hits showcase (which began promptly at the ticket starting time).

“We know you came to see rock ‘n’ roll tonight, so we’re gonna give you a little rock ‘n’ roll,” said saxophonist Ronald Bell.

The 10-piece outfit, clad in colorful vests and shades, set a party vibe early with “Fresh” and “Misled.”

The group understands the tenor of the room, and when Robert “Kool” Bell stepped out front to unleash some fat bass lines on “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie,” you realized why Roth chose them as openers.

The masses might remember them for R&B-lite thumpers such as “Too Hot” and the horn-dusted “Ladies Night,” but the roots of this New Jersey band are steeped in funk.

Naturally, it was the inescapable “Celebration” -- a wretched song made palatable live thanks to an infusion of funk -- that propelled the crowd to its feet. But it was hard to resist the rhythm of even this overplayed wedding dance floor staple while absorbing the Gang’s infectious energy.

Concert preview

Van Halen with Kool & the Gang. 8 p.m. April 19. $29.50-$149.50. Philips Arena, 1 Philips Drive, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.

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