Alice in Chains is one of the more interesting cases of a major grunge group experiencing post-90s success.
They don'êt carry a catalog of anthems like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. They'êre nowhere near Nirvana's poppy punk-metal hybrid style, and they don'êt define their genre in the way a band like Mudhoney does. Oh, and their original lead singer died suddenly, replaced by a relative unknown four years ago. All of this points to Alice in Chains being one of the least likely comeback bands from the era of flannel fashion and Neanderthal hairstyles. But they're not only making a comeback, they're cranking out a batch of quality new tunes to boot.
There they were Thursday night (Feb. 4) at the Paramount Theatre, nearly two decades after the g-word was in Vogue, playing to a capacity crowd of rabid fans while supporting a new Grammy-nominated album — last year'ês exceptional Black Gives Way to Blue. The album, which lost to AC/DC for Best Hard Rock Performance, was released 14 years after the band's last studio recording.
The band'ês original singer, Layne Staley, died of a drug overdose in 2002. Three years later the surviving members — guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney — reunited for a benefit concert featuring guest vocalists. I was at that concert and aside from wondering what the songs would sound like if Staley were helming microphone duties, I couldn'êt stop noticing the smiles on the faces of the Chains gang. They all seemed genuinely happy to be playing music together again after going through the tragedy of losing a friend together.
Those same smiles were in fine form Thursday during the band'ês 19-song set with new singer William DuVall, who joined the band in 2006, replacing Staley. The set list featured plenty of new material, most of which fit well alongside the group'ês radio hits and fan favorites from the AIC back catalog.
The fans savored every second of every song, enthusiastically throwing up devil horns hand gestures while nodding and banging their heads along to the music. During the trio of somewhat acoustic numbers 'êYour Decision,'ê 'êGot Me Wrong'ê and 'êNo Excuses,'ê most everyone was singing along. It was one of the more excited crowds I'êve seen, which made it a nice change from the typical Seattle concert experience.
The set list was a little uneven with a bit of lull near its end, but the band picked things up during the encore with 'êWould'ê and 'êRooster,'ê two of the best songs of the night. It would'êve been great to hear more material off the band'ês first two releases Facelift and Sap. But it made sense to replace the old material with new songs for a few reasons. First, the material was written with DuVall in mind and the idea of a tour is to support the new album. Another, of course, is that songs like 'êWe Die Young,'ê 'êBleed the Freak'ê and lots of older material heavily features Staley, and DuVall'ês range doesn'êt get quite as deep and gravelly as his predecessor'ês once did.
The band has played a handful of local shows with DuVall (most recently a surprise show at Experience Music Project last August). But Thursday was my first time seeing the group since they found a permanent replacement for Staley. After spending part of the show wondering what the songs would sound like if Staley were still alive, much like I did in 2005, I shifted my focus to DuVall and his powerful pipes.
The set started with 'êAll Secrets Known,'ê the lead track from Black Gives Way to Blue, which features Cantrell on lead vocals. A lot of the songs on the new album have Cantrell, who writes a majority of Alice in Chains'ê songs, fronting the group. However, when DuVall is given the opportunity to have his voice heard he is noticeable presence.
When DuVall was harmonizing with Cantrell it was tough to distinguish his voice from Staley'ês dark and menacing vocals. When he took lead on "It Ain'êt Like That," the second song of the set, it became clear he is a suitable heir to Staley'ês throne as the dark knight of grunge.
That'ês not to say there weren'êt a few times when DuVall sounded more like a Staley impersonator than his actual self, which was both a good and bad thing. On some songs like 'êSickman'ê and 'êDown in a Hole,'ê he came across as if he were poorly channeling Staley. Luckily those two songs came late in the set after he won over the crowd, or at least won me over. The crowd seemed sold from his first note of the night. Other times, like with 'êAgain'ê and 'êDam That River,'ê DuVall took complete ownership of the songs. Hopefully he will be able to do more of that and not continue to attempt to impersonate Staley.
Overall it was nice to hear DuVall leave his mark on the band for better or worse. His presence begins a new chapter in the career of Alice in Chains, which is definitely something worth smiling about.
Tonight: Alice in Chains performs a second show at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle, with opener Creature With the Atomic Brain. Showtime is 8 p.m. and tickets costs $46.50.
Set list from Thursday's show:
All Secrets Known
It Ain't Like That
Check my Brain
Dam That River
Rain When I Die
Got Me Wrong
Last Of My Kind
Down In A Hole