The first time Van Halen changed singers – swapping David Lee Roth for Sammy Hagar – their debut concert with the Red Rocker on March 27, 1986 couldn’t have been more triumphant.

But when they tried the same thing a second time – on April 10, 1998 at Wellington, New Zealand’s Queens Wharf Event Centre – with former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone at the mic, the party sure seemed lively onstage. But behind the scenes, it was an entirely different story.

Fans didn’t ask for refunds or set fire to their seats when Van Halen Mach III took the stage. (This was their first public appearance, after all.) But Cherone’s carefully orchestrated soft-launch, far away from the U.S. media’s glaring headlights, would stall the trouble brewing back home for only a short time.

Cherone’s rookie nerves and unfamiliar visual presence proved to be a minor distraction for the New Zealand audience gathered to see Van Halen that night. They did a jukebox show, wisely sprinkling just a handful of new songs among a few select Hagar-era favorites ("When It’s Love," "Dreams," "Right Now") and a generous helping of Roth-period classics ("Unchained," "Panama," "Jump"), plus resurrected album tracks like "Mean Street," "Romeo Delight" and "Somebody Get Me a Doctor."

It was as varied and as crowd-pleasing a set list as any open-minded Van Halen fan could ask for. Problem was, open-minded Van Halen fans were in short supply once Van Halen III, Cherone’s debut album with the band, hit record stores and radio stations. It simply didn't meet expectations.

Whether it was because the new music replaced the party-all-the-time attitude with more serious topics, fallout from the Van Halen brothers’ ugly spats with two former singers or other reasons, Van Halen III was their first album not to go platinum. It stalled at No. 4 on the chart, instead of reaching No. 1 like its four predecessors.

Once the tour hit the U.S. and was met with similar disappointment, Cherone’s fate was sealed: Within a year, he was scapegoated as “just the wrong choice” and handed his walking papers. Years of chaos would follow for Van Halen. But for one promising night in New Zealand, things didn't look all that hopeless.

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