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Rocking on: Cantrell at the Armory.

All of Us in Chains

By David King

Alice in Chains

Washington Avenue Armory, Oct. 29

One question needed to be an swered at the Armory on Saturday night, and it wasn’t “Is Alice in Chains’ replacement for Layne Staley going to work?” No, the question was, “Are Alice in Chains simply great, or are they simply played over and over again, again, again and again?” All of my previous appreciation for the band had been sucked away over the years by ceaseless modern-rock-radio airplay and intermittent aping by far lesser bands. (Yes, Godsmack, I’m talking to you. A cheap shot for a cheap imitation.)

Things didn’t start well. The opening act, Hurt, who could be described only as Staind fronted by Garth Brooks, had the middle-aged guys spilling their beers and groping their wives. Hurt’s lead singer’s overuse of cheese-grater distortion on his vocals and vague, uninspired lyrics like “so much emotion” left me angry at Alice in Chains for what their legacy has wrought on modern rock.

When Alice in Chains took the stage, playing their monotonous 1996 single “Again,” things only got worse. Drunk tough guys wearing college-football caps high-fived and phoned their friends to taunt them with, “How fucking awesome is this dude? Your ass should be here!” (Of course, Alice in Chains have always appealed just as much to fans of Ratt as they did to fans of Tad.)

After the stale opening, however, things started to come together. First off, Staley’s replacement, William Duvall, proved early on that he had range and swagger. Although his voice was not as torn-up and despairing as Staley’s, Duvall powered through classic Staley moments with bravado. But Duvall was careful not to demand too much of the crowd too early—he left that up to ax man Jerry Cantrell.

Cantrell elicited cheers and cries of “Jerry, you’re God!” by simply stepping forward or moving his volume nob. So, when he finally spoke, he sent some in the crowd into convulsions, as though they had just been touched by the hand of God, with the speaking of foreign tongues and that whole shtick.

The band kept things modest but tight through the first half of the show, sticking to album cuts, and building up momentum. But then, inexplicably, they stopped. And as though they thought it was about time to address the giant elephant on stage, they ran a video tribute to Layne Staley while the stage crew set up some white pillars and mood lighting for an unplugged session. There was no need to revisit MTV Unplugged circa 1993.

The videos of Staley ended to thunderous applause and lighters raised by the overwhelmed crowd. When the cheers finally came to a halt, Cantrell demanded more in honor of Staley, and then he quickly introduced Duvall.

What might otherwise have been an excruciatingly somber part of the show turned into a warm look inside the reborn Alice in Chains. Duvall and Cantrell took time between songs to exchange leads or briefly jam on Metallica songs like “One.”

During “Got Me Wrong,” Cantrell asked, “How do you feel?” And the crowd roared back, “I haven’t felt this way in so long!”

Rather than being consumed by the extra- morbid, ultra-personal, Staley-penned songs about being in tombs and rotting, Duvall and Cantrell smiled back and forth at each other as the audience cheered their every move. The pair then exchanged positions, with Cantrell on vocals and Duvall pulling off some smoking acoustic leads. Then it was time to rock again, and the hits came fast: “Angry Chair,” “Heaven Beside You,” “Man in a Box,” and the extremely poignant “Rooster,” which sent the audience’s arms flailing toward the sky with metal horns, pumping fists and clapping hands.

At that point, I wondered if their was anything left for the band to do. No longer needing convincing that Chains were (and are) great, I got ready to leave. . . . But they weren’t done. They left the crowd with a question of their own: “If I would, could you?”

Cantrell took Duvall’s mic stand and twisted its neck toward the crowd, looking for an answer. The sound of thousands of people roaring back a unanimous “Yes!” poured through the microphone and over Cantrell’s flowing blond mane in loving waves. The sound of the stomping and cheering audience looped through the sound system and was launched back out at the crowd twofold. And yes, I heard myself cheering too.

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