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VELVET CHAINS: SLASH & JERRY CANTRELL TAKE OVER JONES BEACH

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Shouldn’t a tour featuring what amounts to 2/3rds of two of the very best rock bands of the early 90s be a cause for celebration? Velvet Revolver and the reconstituted Alice in Chains seem, in almost every way, like perfect tour mates; sure, VR may have a heavier Aerosmith influence where AIC are more directly descendants of Sabbath, but both play heroin-obsessed hard rock, and, more importantly, both are basically inspirational stories about bands persevering in the face of losing their charismatic front man. If nothing else, you’d think that audiences would turn out in droves to just not one but two very likely train wrecks.

And yet there were still plenty of seats available for this past Saturday night’s Jones Beach stop on the VR/Alice tour. Maybe it was the fact that even though Libertad is a vastly superior achievement to Contraband people don’t really seem to be buying it, or maybe it’s that, more than a year into their reunion, with no new album to promote, everyone who wanted to see AIC has done so already; in any case, it’s too bad, because fans who skip this tour are missing one of the best pairings of the year.

After openers Kill Hannah – one of the approximately 1,823,406 bands the media has said sound like Guns N’ Roses even though they don’t sound anything like Guns N’ Roses – Alice in Chains kicked off the evening with a nearly hour-long set that was heavy on tunes from the band’s masterpiece, Dirt, while tossing in crowd sing-along favorite “Man in the Box” from Facelift and “Grind” from the band’s final, self-titled LP. Throughout songs like “Them Bones,” “Rain When I Die,” “Dam that River” and “Down in a Hole,” bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney continued to prove themselves to be one of the tightest, grooviest rhythm sections in the last twenty years; and for the first time since the band started touring again last spring, there was nary a mention of deceased singer Layne Staley – and rightfully so. After some 18 months with the band, new vocalist William DuVall has more than proved himself with his super strong pipes and melodic deliveries that recall Staley’s without ever seeming like a flat out-rip off (we’re looking at you, Sully Erna); DuVall really is good enough to make you at least curious to see if these fellas can pull of the Back in Black of grunge, and he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. During the show closer, a powerful rendition of the Vietnam-themed “Rooster,” footage contrasting that war with our current conflict in Iraq played on a screen behind the band, and as DuVall practically yodeled the chorus (“Y’know he ain’t gonna die”), the slogan “Bush Lied, Thousands Died” appeared to thunderous applause from the crowd.

The real hero of the set, of course, remains lead guitarist/co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell. Hair blowing in the wind, often walking down to the lip of the stage with his inimitable, cocksure swagger, Cantrell still seems only too happy to play the role of guitar hero – and his chops fully warrant that confidence. Bands like to talk about “chemistry” a lot, but there’s no denying that Cantrell, Kinney and Inez really do share some kind of weird mind meld; they sound, simply put, awesome.

So awesome, in fact, that they nearly overshadowed the headliners in Velvet Revolver. Where Cantrell was active and athletic, taking full advantage of the huge stage around him, Slash, uncharacteristically, was almost completely stationary the entire evening, and frontman Scott Weiland, by his own admission, was performing in the face of noticeably strained vocal chords (although, during a few GN’R covers, for the first time that we’ve heard, the known baritone hit Axl Rose-like high notes with what seemed like almost surprising skill and ease). Even with their huge light show, then, VR often seemed unable to elicit the kind of passionate response that Alice so easily evoked throughout the crowd (of course, some might argue that Alice actually had the upper hand all along, being the sentimental favorites).

That’s not to say that VR’s show didn’t have its pleasures. Even a statuary Slash is still Slash, and twenty years later, the guy has still gotta be one of the best guitarists in all of rockdom, and his solos during Velvet songs both new (show opener “Let it Roll,” “Get Out the Door,” “She Mine,” “Gravdancer”) and old (“Superhuman,” “Sucker Train Blues,” “Do it for the Kids,” “Fall to Pieces”) were frequently highlights of the band’s set. Weiland’s David Bowie/Iggy Popisms continue to be incredibly entertaining to watch as he practically convulsed his way across the stage, while rhythm guitarist Dave Kushner and bassist Duff McKagan lept around like monkeys on a sugar high (although Kushner’s guitars were almost comically low in the mix).

Of course, the real shadow that this band still can’t crawl out from under that of their own former bands, true supergroups who probably could have filled the venue to the rafters and beyond several times over. The band and the crowd alike, then, seemed at their most energetic during GN’R and STP covers such as “It’s So Easy,” “Sex Type Thing,” “Vasoline” and “Mr. Brownstone,” and the gig’s shining moment was undoubtedly a protracted acoustic section performed from stools (recalling, somewhat ironically, a similar trick that AIC utilized during their club tour last year) that included stirring renditions of “Interstate Love Song” and “Patience” (which got those cigarette lighters and cell phones up in the air and the whole crowd singing along) along side Libertad‘s Beatles-esque ballad “The Last Fight.” Then the band whipped out an extended version of “Slither,” still, perhaps, their strongest number, and the show was over.

Look: if you’d asked me, sometime around 1993/4 or so, if I wanted to go to a show where I could watch both Slash and Jerry Cantrell rip shit up, I’d probably have peed myself with delirious excitement; how satisfying, then, to see that more than a decade later, both musicians are still at the top of their game, avoiding the pratfalls of their peers’ nostalgia trips (Billy Corgan, Bret Michaels, etc.) and playing hard rock the way it was meant to be played. As far as big summer tours go, you couldn’t really do very much better.

-AR

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