Alice in Chains were in town last month, playing at Alexandra Palace. It was the first time I’ve been to a gig there; it’s hugely convenient for me as it’s five minutes walk up the hill from my home. A rarity for London!
I was looking forward to the gig because it would be only the third time I’d seen them live, each time with a different line up; the first time in 20 years, and the first also with new(ish) singer William DuVall. The two previous AiC gigs had been as an ear-manglingly loud support act for Megadeth at Poole Arts Centre on the 1991 Rust in Peace tour (when, as you’ve no doubt guessed, AiC were still pretty metal \m/), and at Manchester Academy in 1993 on the Dirt tour, supported by The Wildhearts. The latter remains one of my favourite all-time gigs.
When Radio Seattle were looking for a new singer at the start of the year, we were chatting with one potential recruit about the grunge bands and what he thought of them all. Cue a foam-flecked tirade about the new AiC line up. “I call them Alice in Shit,” he frothed. “They’re just a tribute act without Layne Staley.” He was quite agitated about it and, none of us being exactly confrontational, we let it pass after an awkward and very English silence. He eventually calmed down a bit. (But not much. He would have been a teensy-weensy bit high maintenance in the band. I’m very glad Sean turned up.)
Even though Ally Pally is just up the road, frustratingly, we missed support acts Walking Papers, whose line up includes Seattle-born Duff McKagan, and Ghost, whose Infesstissimum album has been well-received this year. Shame, serves me right for being disorganised.
Alice in Chains were in fine fettle, an opening squall of feedback preceding the two lead-off tracks from Dirt, followed swiftly with ‘Check My Brain’ from DuVall’s first album in the band. It was a great start to the set, the songs performed to a high standard by some excellent musicians. Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney and Mike Inez have been playing together a long time now and the tight, confident delivery reflected this.
Classy guitarist Cantrell is undoubtedly the heartbeat of the band, but, irrespective of the thoughts of the singer we auditioned, DuVall has brought a huge amount to Alice in Chains. He brings his own take on Staley-era material (no slavish imitation, however similar to some the voice may superficially seem), has bags of energy live, combines his voice with Cantrell’s superbly, adds rhythm guitar where needed, and has contributed to the evolution of the band’s sound since joining in 2006. After years of stasis, DuVall has enabled the band finally to move on from the Staley era and its lengthy, unproductive and desperately tragic coda.
Cantrell quietly dedicated ‘Rotten Apple’ – the first of two consecutive songs from the brooding, reflective Jar of Flies EP – to Staley and original bassist Mike Starr (Inez replaced him for the 1993 Dirt tour): two musicians overwhelmed and eventually defeated by their addictions. At times throughout the set, shadows of Cantrell and DuVall played on the pale Victorian wall to the right of the stage, and they seemed particularly apposite at this point. ‘Nutshell’ was to get an airing a couple of nights later in Manchester; shame not to hear it in London.
The sound inside Ally Pally was decent, though I felt from further back that it was sometimes absorbed by the empty space in the high-ceilinged main hall. I was at the bar for ‘We Die Young’ – a set highlight apparently – but was back for ‘Down in a Hole’, one of the standout tracks from Dirt, but an odd choice perhaps to close the main set with. The band repeated the trick by finishing up the encore with ‘Rooster’.
It was notable how few songs the band played from the two recent albums recorded with DuVall: only two from each (‘Voices’ was originally in the set only to be replaced by ‘It Ain’t Like That’). I had mixed feelings about this: although the Staley-era material will always be close to my heart, I had expected the band to play more songs from the two DuVall albums. The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is (disappointingly) a somewhat tepid affair, single-paced and lacking dynamic tension, and they played its two strongest tracks in ‘Hollow’ and ‘Stone’, but more from Black Gives Way to Blue would have been welcome.
The mixed feelings never quite went away. It was a cracking, albeit fairly short, gig. The band performed with plenty of energy and slick professionalism, and their sound has evolved from its dense, heavy grunge-era vibe into one of a more classic rock leaning. And that’s for the best; things have to move on and a band should never aim simply to create ever-weaker copies of an unchanging sound. But at the same time, in part probably because Mad Season have been in my thoughts a lot recently, I found myself missing Staley and the additional spark that he could bring.
Two further reviews of the gig: a tart and possibly quickly dashed off one by Mark Beaumont for The Guardian (I don’t think you can blame AiC, let alone PJ and Soundgarden, for Limp Bizkit!); and a positive one by a fellow blogger Columnist. And here’s Cantrell discussing the 13 albums that made him the guitarist he is.
Setlist: Them Bones, Dam That River, Check My Brain, Again, Man in the Box, Got Me Wrong, Last of My Kind, Hollow, Rotten Apple, No Excuses, We Die Young, Dirt, Down in a Hole
Encore: It Ain’t Like That, Would?, Rooster