The third time just may be the charm for Van Halen. Not that the first two tries weren't for these wildly successful hard-rock veterans. But, judging from their debut live performance with singer Gary Cherone Thursday night, Van Halen III radiates an energy and enthusiasm not seen since Van Halen II. (The album, that is, not the lineup.)

The setting for this secret show, fittingly, was Billboard Live, a Sunset Strip nightclub perched on the ruins of Gazzarri's, where Van Halen first built their name in the late '70s. That name was sullied in 1995 when Sammy Hagar and, later, the band's tentatively rehired original singer, David Lee Roth, were pink-slipped.

Many consider the former Extreme frontman an odd choice to help rebuild the VH name. But Cherone breathed new fire into the old crew--guitarist extraordinaire Eddie Van Halen, drumming brother Alex and bassist Michael Anthony--as he led his mates through seven Roth-era rockers and three from the new Van Halen III CD, due March 17.

While his vocals soar like Hagar's, Cherone's campy flair for showmanship is pure Roth. He repeatedly twirled in place and dropped to his knees, high-kicked and nearly teetered offstage in his wingtip shoes. This made it an especially rousing pleasure to watch the self-declared "third and final" Van Halen lineup perform "Unchained," "Feel Your Love Tonight," "Dance the Night Away," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "I'm the One" and the more obscure "Mean Street" and "Romeo Delight." (With rare exceptions, Hagar avoided the Roth catalog in concert.)

Surprisingly for a man who's stumbled into a pretty good gig, Cherone wasn't the brightest smiler onstage. That honor goes to the rejuvenated Eddie Van Halen. Clad in a knit cap, shorts over sweatpants and a tank top revealing newly buff biceps, the guitarist beamed nonstop as he squeezed out his blazing solos and tracked the younger Cherone across the stage like a proud papa.

The only awkward puzzle piece was Alex, who made a reliable thump but a disturbing sight in a neck brace. (During an Album Network radio interview preceding the show, the drummer described the condition of his herniated neck as "fine...more or less.")

In addition to its current single, "Without You," which faded into a barbershop quartet harmonization of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," the band previewed two solid new songs--a "Summer Nights"-esque chugger called "Fire in the Hole" and the blistering "One I Want," which features the lyric "a good man, he's hard to find."

With Cherone, Van Halen seems to have found him.

But whether old VH fans will embrace Gary Cherone remains to be seen. While Thursday's show was a resounding success, it was hardly a proving ground for Van Halen's upcoming world tour--especially considering the room was intentionally packed with rabid fans, Industry types and family (including Eddie's wife Valerie Bertinelli).

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