The set began tentatively, like it was the band’s very first time on stage all over again. Each note was practiced and perfectly placed, each band member was nervously dreading any mistake that might set the crowd against them.
For Alice in Chains, it was the first night on the first full tour in support of their first new studio album in fourteen years. After all that the band had been through, with the untimely and deeply heartbreaking death of Layne Staley, the decision to try again with new singer William DuVall, and the release of new material, it only stood to reason that Jerry Cantrell and the other remaining “classic” members of Alice in Chains would be curious how the evening would play out. It remained to be seen if the wounds had healed. As the band launched into “All Secrets Known” from behind a huge white curtain, the show was off to a pins-and-needles start.
The music from the outset was remarkably tight despite being the first night on the tour. The crowd was receptive, and cheered lustily to help break Alice in Chains out of their shell. My friend turned to me and said “It seems very work-in-progress. They look a little stiff.” I could only respond “Right now, they probably need us more than we need them.” Presumptive? Perhaps. I can’t really profess to know what was in Jerry Cantrell’s head as they busted into an old sentimental favorite, “It Ain’t Like That.” Still, I couldn’t help but feel like Jerry and the band were emotionally reaching out, asking the fans if it was okay that they had a new singer and new material.
Over the first few songs, from “Check My Brain” and “Rain When I Die,” into a powerful, surging “Again,” the veneer of rust began to crack, with the crowd cheering more with each passing song.
Then it happened. The roof absolutely came off the building when the band tore into “Got Me Wrong.” It made the entire price of admission worth it. All the rust and all the wondering were suddenly dissipated in a well-meaning and honest crowd cheering sing-along. For a song not considered one of Alice in Chains’ ‘power songs,’ it was emotional, hit heavy and played with a certain bravado. “Got Me Wrong” is now likely one of the fifteen or twenty best songs I have seen live. Suddenly, each musician looked like they were enjoying being rock stars for the first time in a while.
From that point forward, the band could do no wrong. “Down in a Hole,” “We Die Young” and “Them Bones” into “Dam That River” all sounded fresh and new. The set list was more old than new, but they did throw in a fine “Last of My Kind” toward the end of the set. They were on fire and playing like it. Cantrell, Inez, Kinney and DuVall looked extremely comfortable and imparted a lot of energy without having to brazenly run around and exert themselves.
William DuVall deserves some special credit for his performance with the band. It would be easy for him (and surreptitiously, the rest of the band,) to try and take over the persona of ‘lead singer’ and put a born-anew spin on the band’s image. DuVall, to the contrary, recognizes how iconic Staley is and has a clear respect for the singer’s memory. It’s possible that he could lead Alice in Chains to a second career phase Bon Scott/Brian Johnson style, but it might be a little late to start that now.
The only detractor from the show was the choice of “Sickman” in the set. Don’t get me wrong, I like the dissonance in that song a lot, but at least on this night, Alice in Chains didn’t seem as much like the band that wrote that song all those years ago.
There was a soft moment as Cantrell dedicated “Nutshell” to both Staley and Ronnie James Dio. The crowd cheered with respect for both.
It was inevitable that the set would finish with “Angry Chair” bled into “Man in a Box.” Even more academic was the mandatory two song encore “Would?” and “Rooster.” Everyone in the building knew they were coming. Nobody minded.
With a quiet thanks and a lot of crowd support, the band basked in the glow of adoration, happy to see that we all still were there to support them. They hit the road for Europe for a couple months, but come back to tour with the Deftones and Mastodon in the summer. If you can, see them. You won’t be disappointed.