For all the pomp, pageantry and excess of the previous day in a field thirty miles from Tulsa, there was a lack of focus. Even though the simple fact that a Guns and Roses gig, with Axl Rose singing some of the most memorable, catchy, and energetic rock songs of the last thirty years can take place in 2013 *should* be something special, it never felt anything more than a painful two-hour plod by highly recompensed musicians well past their expiry date. It was the sort of big rock gig you could have seen anywhere. Big names at festivals should always be aspiring to produce not only a great performance but something that transcends even their usual great performance, channelling the energy of tens of thousands of people who have spent all day and all night getting wasted. Radiohead at Glastonbury (twice!) would be the perfect examples. No one present could ever possibly forget those performances.
Guns and Roses was not that sort of gig. Neither, although their focus and musicianship was a lot more admirable than anything from the previous night, were Saturday's penultimate main stage act Bullet For My Valentine. Their energetic set failed to connect with the crowd, as really did any main stage act over the weekend. Part of the problem there was the amazing VIP/GA crowd situation, which saw the first hundred feet of center stage occupied mainly by sparsely populated seating VIP seating.
As they left the stage, though, anticipation was building for Alice In Chains. The sun was going down facing the main stage and the incredibly poor attendance of the previous night had been transformed into a crowd of thousands, steaming both from the humidity and from the amounts of booze being consumed. People milled and stumbled, lawn chairs were arranged in lines that would prove to be a labyrinth for the many shirtless intoxicated, and the crush at the GA fences got deeper and more thoroughly packed.
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We arrived from an anticipatory beer run back to our campsite just in time to catch a confident, rollocking, efficiently brutal version of "Them Bones" being bashed out by way of an opener. The stage was dark, sparse even, with a giant screen behind the band showing simple imagery. All the band members were dressed in black, and nothing on the stage, even the bass drum skin, was branded with the band's name. It was low-key, almost. Jerry Cantrell, looking good for his age, with a slightly weathered visage and short grey hair, pulled off the complex solo of the opener with no visible effort whatsoever, no grandstanding on a monitor, no running around. Just a supremely talented musician playing a classic solo with the minimum of fuss but the maximum of focus and application. It was note-perfect.
What this headline performance actually was was a proper rock concert. While showmanship has its place, there's no substitute for the actual part where all the men play their instruments well and the songs hit home. Maybe it's an unfair comparison - AiC were always the more thoughtful band, and their music never lent itself well to theatrics. Nevertheless, on a darkened stage, with frontman William DuVall's vocals providing a flawless impression of the sadly departed Layne Stayley and doing that thing where they harmonize with Jerry Cantrell to produce a harmony greater than the sum of its parts, the overall effect was breathtaking. So was the strength of AiC's back catalog, an oft-overlooked aspect of their careers that gets lost underneath the big radio hits that the crowd here had come to see. While the previous night all that got big cheers were the golden standards, AiC got a rapturous reception throughout and mumblings could be heard around us about the quality of this compared to Friday night.
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DuVall is equally at home being the sunglasses-toting frontman, all fuzzy hair and coolness, as he is crooning from behind a guitar. He is not a replacement frontman living in the shadow of the band's previous singer, legendary as Stayley might have been. He is also humble in between songs, constantly thanking the crowd with a minimum of fuss. There is a minimum of fuss throughout the set, with virtually no breaks in the action. "Down In A Hole" was almost spiritual in its quality, the harmonized vocals drifting into the ether as tens of thousands stood entranced. The striking aspect was the let-up in pace compared to other acts across the weekend, none of whom you could imagine busting out an acoustic guitar and still retaining the respect of the liquored masses.
It was a close-your-eyes, hairs standing up on the back of the neck, mesmerizing performance, all utterly focused aggression and pin-point performances. There was no pretension about it whatsoever, and rather than the valedictory performance honoring yesteryear that so many bands of the era who still remain together give at largely nostalgic rock festivals, it was a performance that showed the band are still an incredible presence perfectly capable of playing a relevant show, something that is astonishing when you consider Facelift came out in 1990.
For the final track of the evening, the rock radio classic cut "Rooster", Jerry Cantrell's father, a native Oklahoman and the subject of the song, came onstage and waved a brief hello to the gathered masses. It wasn't overblown, it wasn't gimmicky. It was just touching, thoughtfully done, and followed by a performance of such quality that you couldn't help be impressed. The stage lights blazed into the dark sky as the crescendos rose, the drunken singalong gained momentum, and the cheers rang into the night as the crowd eventually dispersed to catch other acts on the smaller stages. Unlike a lot of those acts, this was relevant, enthralling, and deeply memorable. I urge you to catch Alice in Chains when they roll into Dallas in August.