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I had kind of a stunning realization last night as I watched Alice in Chains blow the roof off Irving Plaza/The Fillmore/whatever the fuck it’s called now. It was during the second song of the band’s ninety minute set, “Again.” (The show opener was “Rain When I Die,” in case you’re curious.) New vocalist William DuVall (well at this point he’s not really new anymore, but I guess he’s new-ish) didn’t just sing the phrase “Again and again and again” – he belted it, jumping up onto the monitors to give himself just a little extra boost in the rockstar god department. Then, as it came time for him to grunt and signal the start of the “Doo-doo, doo-doo” sing-along section (and sing along the crowd did), DuVall lept off the monitor and started pumping his fist in the air, prompting the audience to do the same. As he finally turned to face drummer Sean Kinney, Kinney started grinning; and then the grin spread across the stage like an infectious disease, and by the end of the song, guitarist Jerry Cantrell and bassist Mike Inez were smiling, too.

And that’s when it hit me. It was kind of a morbid epiphany, especially for someone who held deceased vocalist Layne Staley in as high regard as I did, but it was an important epiphany for a fan who hopes to follow this band into their future. Here it is:

Layne Staley did not want to be with us here tonight.

Fucked up, but true. Ever read Staley’s final interview? He used phrases like “I know I’m dying” and “I don’t wanna see people anymore and it’s nobody’s business but mine” and said that his bandmates from AIC were “not my friends.” Whatever void dope filled for Staley was one that his friends couldn’t fill, his family couldn’t fill, his music couldn’t fill, and performing said music for thousands of fans who wanted nothing less than to shower him with accolades couldn’t fill. Even if he knew that getting hooked on heroin was a huge mistake, Staley obviously never had that infamous “rock bottom” moment when he realized that whatever it was in his life that made him feel passionate was going to go away if he didn’t kick the habit. He chose the drugs over the music and the band and everything else.

But the other members of Alice in Chains – including DuVall – do want to be here. They want to go out and kill it every night, and by all appearances, are incredibly excited about the impending release of their new album, Black Gives Way to Blue. Almost twenty years since they first arrived on the scene, Alice in Chains still seem to be – almost magically – at the top of their game. Staley was an irreplaceable voice, to be sure, but with four dudes this talented and this enthusiastic still plugging away, it feels as though his ghost is finally evaporating. Which, sad though it may seem, is as it should be.

The band played four new songs, including one that I didn’t catch the title of; in any case, “Check My Brain” and “A Looking In View” actually sound twice as heavy live as they do in their studio incarnations, and I am now even more convinced that Black is going to slay (And Vince says I’m right).

Mostly, though, they concentrated on the classics. The sound was crystal-clear, allowing those in attendance to concentrate on Cantrell’s warm, wah-heavy guitars, Inez’s thudding, groove-laden bass, or Kinney’s impeccable drumming as they saw fit. DuVall’s voice is in top shape – again, here’s a dude who has absolutely no need for auto-tune – and his harmonies with Cantrell are just as powerful as the ones Staley used to do.

All the songs that you’d imagine would get the audience to croon along at a volume outpacing even DuVall’s did just that – “Them Bones,” “Angry Chair,” “Man in the Box,” and the final encore of “Would?” But the group hasn’t lost their touch for quieter, more introspective moments, either: a stirring rendition of “Nutshell” was dedicated to Staley (natch), while “Down in a Hole” – which might be my personal favorite AIC song of all time – seemed likely to bring a tear to the eye of more than one macho man in the crowd. (Not me, though. Real men don’t cry. Honest.) Material from the band’s 1995 self-titled release was used only sparingly, although the aforementioned “Again” and an encore of “Sludge Factory” did seem to get everyone’s blood pumpin’.

Cantrell is, perhaps now more than ever, the star of the show. The most common chant of the night was for “JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!” On “Brain,” the guitarist moved his mic front and center while DuVall shuffled to the side of the stage, thus cementing Cantrell’s position as the band’s actual front man. And he’s certainly earned that spot – his leads still smoke half the dudes out there.

Still, AIC is a band, and everyone is pulling their weight. After the gig was over, we stood outside with some friends doing the usual post-show “Wow! That was awesome!” discussion on the sidewalk, and I was a little mortified to realize how few people actually know what DuVall’s name is. Hopefully, that’s about to change. ‘Cause William DuVall deserves to be here – and unlike his predecessor, he wants to be here.


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