Bob Seger Makes All the Right “Night Moves” in Jubilant Return to Grand Rapids

Every classic rocker still on tour after the age of 65 will attract some naysayers and the usual quibbling over impaired vocal range, restrained stage energy and predictable set lists.

If any of that could be applied to Hall of Fame singer-songwriter Bob Seger’s recent tours, it’s also fair to say the beloved Michigan icon and his Silver Bullet Band usually obliterate all of the nit-picking with a joyous live embrace of enduring songs and a lovable, nostalgic vibe that many graying veterans of the rock ’n’ roll trade simply can’t replicate.

That’s especially true in the Great Lakes State where the ever-popular Seger could probably run for governor and win in a landslide.

And it was true once again at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena on Tuesday night, when the third stop on his national Rock and Roll Never Forgets Tour turned into a Seger love-fest for many in the capacity crowd of 12,000 or so.

Travelin’ Man: Bob Seger’s Grand Rapids show was just the third stop on his U.S. tour.

From the opening salvo of Seger’s cover of John Hiatt’s uptempo “Detroit Made” to the closing, encore wallop of the customary “Night Moves” and “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” Seger and his familiar crew – along with new lead guitarist Rob McNelley – came off as more energetic and ebullient than ever, validating the decision to tour again even without a new album to promote.

And to his credit, the 67-year-old Seger — who seemed especially fit physically and vocally — changed things up a bit from his last tour and his last swing through Grand Rapids by performing a tasty new ballad, “All the Roads” (targeted for that much-delayed, fresh studio album), dusting off the 1986 hit, “Like a Rock,” and covering Wilco’s “California Stars” as part of the 2-hour-and-9-minute show.

McNelley, who’s replacing Mark Chatfield on lead guitar on the 2013 tour, didn’t miss a beat, uncorking nearly flawless solos throughout the evening. The rest of the band shined pretty brightly, too: saxophonist Alto Reed, bassist Chris Campbell, keyboardist Craig Frost, drummer Don Brewer, guitarist Jim “Moose” Brown, backing singers Shaun Murphy, Laura Creamer and Barbara Payton, and the Motor City Horns’ John Rutherford, Keith Kaminski, Bob Jensen and hometown boy/trumpet player Mark Byerly, who graduated from Forest Hills Central High School.

Although Frost told me afterward that three shows into the new tour the band is still tweaking the on-stage sound, the veteran ensemble sounded as tight as it has on any of its recent tours, with Seger’s raspy voice coming off strong and confident most of the night.

That night began with a 45-minute set of rockabilly-styled retro rock by Oklahoma’s JD McPherson and his band, featuring a stand-up bass and some rollicking honky-tonk piano. McPherson last played Grand Rapids at the Tip Top Deluxe Bar & Grill on the West Side, so the packed arena — which gave him a warm reception — was certainly a new experience for the singer-guitarist.

Naturally, things heated up quickly after Seger hit the stage, with the Grand Rapids audience diving right into the “good-time Bobby sing-along revival” — a mostly greatest hits affair enhanced this time around by the addition of two large video screens flanking the stage.

Even for the lion’s share of fans who’ve seen the bulk of this show before, classics such as “Turn the Page,” “Hollywood Nights” and “Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser” had a dynamic luster as a grinning Seger shuffled and stalked the stage, pumped his fists and pointed skyward. (With the exception of dropping “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” due to the length of the opener’s set, the 23-song show was the same as the tour-opening concert in Toledo last week.)

Seger — clad in a modest black T-shirt and black headband — seemed particularly excited about the night’s new material, playing his own “All The Roads” on acoustic guitar, with some spine-tingling backing vocals by Payton, Murphy and Creamer, and a scintillating cover of “California Stars,” with words by Woody Guthrie and music by Wilco.

Of course, he also made it clear that he loves the Michigan fans on the western side of the state where he once cut his teeth in bars and at festivals, frequently making reference to Grand Rapids and West Michigan between, and even during, songs.

“We’re gonna have some fun tonight, I got a feeling,” Seger said to roars from the audience early on.

By the end of the evening, pretty much everybody in the arena had the feeling he was right.

John Sinkevics