Jerry Cantrell’s “Brighten” Tour hit Montclair’s The Wellmont Theater a few weeks back with supporting act Thunderpussy. It was a performance eagerly anticipated by fans in the New Jersey town and its surrounding areas, as hundreds of fans lined up down the block to be among the first to get in as soon as the doors opened. It was an excitement that I understood and shared enthusiastically – Jerry Cantrell is a grunge icon, after all.
Pardon the lame metaphor, but if my love of music was a tree, grunge would surely be its roots. So much of what I tend to look for in a band can be traced back to a sonic or stylistic element present in grunge. As a kid growing up in the 90s, my introduction to music came by way of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and, of course, Alice in Chains. The haunting harmonies created by Layne Stayley and Jerry Cantrell set Alice in Chains apart from the rest – it was a sound that I felt to my core the very first time I heard it. I live a few blocks from the theater where they recorded their iconic MTV Unplugged performance, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a moment to acknowledge that fact every single time that I walk by the building. I never got to see Layne Stayley perform, but it was going to be an honor to see Jerry Cantrell perform, and to have the opportunity to shoot the performance as well.
With this opportunity came one challenge: Jerry Cantrell and Thunderpussy’s performances would need to be the shot from the soundboard instead of the photo pit. I’d been to the Wellmont before but it was over a decade ago, so I couldn’t recall the distance from the soundboard to the stage. I had my 70-200mm lens – would it be long enough? What if it wasn’t? I hate feeling unprepared, so I rented the Canon 100-500mm lens as well as the 1.4x Extender for good measure. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it!
As soon as I walked into the Wellmont and saw that the soundboard was a relatively short distance away from the stage, I felt like I’d over-prepared. Maybe the 70-200 would be sufficient after all. Still, I went with the 100-500, partially because it would still be useful even a closer distance than I’d thought, and partially (mostly) because I felt the need to justify the money I’d spent to rent it.
The rules around the shooting location within the venue began to change in real time prior to the show beginning, and the group of photographers that amassed followed each other from one side of the room to the other and back again while chasing a final decision from security. The rules still weren’t entirely clear when Thunderpussy took the stage, but we all collectively decided to do our best to get the shots we needed while keeping our distance.
Guitarist Whitney Petty took the stage first and stood solo under an overhead spotlight, gliding a bow across her Les Paul and pulling the tones from its strings. She was then joined by the rest of the band and they collectively kicked off the set with “I Can Do Better.” The song started low and slow, building in intensity all the while maintaining a perpetual darkness throughout. Frontwoman Molly Sides’ vocal talent was on full display as she put everything she had behind every note that she sang.
While the 100-500mm gave me the added zoom I wanted (I left the 1.2x Extender off), it came at the cost of a few aperture stops. The widest I could shoot was 4.5 and my usual settings kept my aperture hovering around 2.8. I was able to counter with an increased ISO, but my shots were still more underexposed than I wanted.
I thought perhaps a change in location might help, and I found a spot closer to the center of the stage where I could post up for a bit. Whitney Petty and Molly Sides were feeding off of each other’s energy, creating photo-worthy moment after moment, and the addition of the band’s logo being projected behind them gave me the perfect opportunity to grab some wide shots of the band as well. I was feeling good when they wrapped their third song, “Never Know”, and I went back to stage left to review my shots and plan for Jerry Cantrell’s set.
Cantrell kicked off his set with “Atone”, the opening track from the album of his tour’s namesake. I was fixated on him from the start, determined to get a good shot of one of the pillars of my musical identity. By the time he started “Psychotic Break”, I realized I was running out of time and needed to get shots of the backing band. My vantage point made it easy to grab shots of guitarist and backing vocalist but it was a little trickier for the rest of the band.
I started to move toward the center of the room but ran into a few photographers walking in the opposite direction who informed me that the other spots we’d been using were too crowded with fans. In other words, I’d need to say put.
I knew I’d been favoring Cantrell with my shots, but it wasn’t until reviewing after the fact that I realized how little time I’d spent on anyone else. A few band members I missed entirely. Sure I could blame my vantage point of the stage and the inability to relocate to have a better angle, but that would be a cop out.
When it comes down to it, I should have just done a better job of prioritizing getting shots of everyone on the stage (I need to follow my own advice). That said, when Jerry Cantrell started playing “Them Bones”, I couldn’t help but sacrifice some photo-shooting time to enjoy listening to the classic Alice In Chains tune.
The remainder of the set included a comfortable mix of songs new and old, touching on the AIC years to today and every chapter in between. After all these years, Jerry Cantrell is still at his very best – and I still feel those classic harmonies to my core.