NEW YORK — The spirit of grunge rock was alive and well inside the Bowery Ballroom on Tuesday night as the surviving members of Alice in Chains took the cramped club's begrimed stage for the fifth and final stop on the iconic band's brief U.S. club run.
The concert was preceded by days of speculation about which "special guests" would join the rockers to sub for late frontman Layne Staley, who died in April 2002 from a mixture of heroin and cocaine (see "Layne Staley, Alice In Chains Singer, Dead At 34"). The most popular of the rumors had been Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose, who was in New York for four gigs at the Hammerstein Ballroom (see "Guns N' Roses Live: No Reunion Of Classic Lineup, But Great Anyway"). There was also talk of Velvet Revolver's Scott Weiland, Type O Negative's Peter Steele or ex-Pantera mainman Phil Anselmo joining the band.
Alas, there were no surprise guests Tuesday. Even Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagan, who'd been touring with the group on this trek as a second guitarist, was missing. But that didn't seem to distract the hundreds who congested the Bowery's floor to witness the Chains revival (see "Alice In Chains Unveil Handful Of U.S. Club Dates").
The mob bellowed at the sight of guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who emerged from the backstage area in a "Reefer Madness" T-shirt, black jeans and Converse sneakers, hoisting his ax high in the air. Bassist Mike Inez rushed to the front of the stage and rowdily slapped the outstretched hands that greeted him. Drummer Sean Kinney took his place behind the kit and winked and nodded at the audience. Comes With the Fall singer William DuVall — a member of Cantrell's touring band and the man Alice recruited to handle lead vocals for the group's upcoming slate of international gigs — was welcomed genially. But it was going to take some convincing to convert these die-hards, who at first leered at the afroed singer.
Without much warning, Alice in Chains dove right into "Sludge Factory," from the band's final studio LP, the self-titled 1995 "three-legged dog" disc. Next up was "Dam That River" from Alice's breakthrough 1992 album, Dirt. Cantrell's expert guitar-shredding was executed effortlessly and anchored by Inez and Kinney's meticulous rhythm section.
The band tackled such classic cuts as "We Die Young," "Junkhead" and "Down in a Hole" throughout the night. And while Alice was once Staley's band, the group belongs now to Cantrell, who elicited chants of "Jer-ry, Jer-ry" between songs and during his commanding solos. Toward the end of "Rain When I Die," Cantrell cocked his left leg and rested his foot atop one of the speakers situated at the edge of the stage. Several fans crushed forward, just so they could brush their fingers across his guitar. One stood before Cantrell, looking up at him with sheer adoration, and began caressing his calf.
It was clear Cantrell, Inez and Kinney loved every minute of it. Inez couldn't stop smiling throughout the hour-long set. DuVall proved himself an able Staley understudy not by merely replicating the late singer's signature wounded style, but by leaving his own mark on Alice's bleak tunes.
After delivering "Rooster," "It Ain't Like That" and "Them Bones," DuVall yelled, "Good night," and everyone but Cantrell raced off the stage. The guitarist grabbed DuVall's mic stand and thrust it over the audience to amplify the unwavering screams and applause. Several audience members reached up and snatched it from his clutches. "Someone's always got to be a dick," Cantrell said.
The night ended with three encore songs: "Would?," "Angry Chair" and "Man in the Box."
"I'll tell you what," Cantrell said. "It f---ing feels good."
By the end of the night, DuVall won over the crowd members, who conveyed their approval by chanting, "New guy, new guy." The gig ended with Cantrell launching himself from the stage onto the crowd, only to be consumed by a swarm of appreciative arms and lost in a sea of sweaty flesh.
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