Nottingham Rock City, Sunday 6th December, 2009
by Noel Oxford
In my carefully-maintained list of top ten ‘gigs I never thought I’d see’, Alice in Chains at Rock City might come in at about number… I dunno, 12? Let’s be realistic, they’ve been piecing themselves back together since about 2005, so it’s not beyond imagination that they would peregrinate to these shires at some point. They were never gonna top out the Jimi Hendrix Experience playing on a bouncy castle (number four) in the improbability stakes. But you’d have thought they’d have gone for the arena or something, rather than the medium-sized and generally somewhat B-list Rock City. These are bona fide, top tier, dad’s vinyl rock legends, after all.
Yet thus it was on the 6th day of December in the year of our lord last year, that Alice brought out his Chains and there they did proceed to turn Rock City rock solid with a gelatinous cuboid of 90s. And they set about ruddy well kicking out the jams while they were at it. Inevitably, though, the ghost of Layne Staley loomed across the backcloth throughout the two-hour set, strung out and gaunt, serving as a giant, unmissable signpost that no matter how brilliantly new voicebox recruit William DuVall performs – and he does – Alice in Chains can never again be the band they once were.
Perhaps it’s with that in mind that the setlist was liberally peppered with songs from the latest album ‘Black Gives Way to Blue’; a good eight numbers including singles ‘A Looking In View’ and ‘Check My Brain’, as well as sludgy monster ‘Acid Bubble’ and the gentle, mid-tempo ‘Your Decision’. You can’t blame them for forging ahead, but the preference of the crowd for the classic material made for a palpable aura.
As opener ‘Rain When I Die’ kicked off, followed by ‘Them Bones’ and ‘Dam That River’, cleverly subverting the play order of ‘Dirt’, the floor convulsed with excitement and belched up an appreciative cheer-leavened sing-along that threatened to drown the massive racket coming off out of the stage. The obvious numbers from ‘Facelift’ and a paltry two tunes from ‘Jar of Flies’ (‘Nutshell’ and ‘No Excuses’) rounded out the setlist, with the three guitarists taking to their stools for the quieter bit in the middle. This slightly flow-breaking re-dressing of the stage also produced a faintly haunting tribute to Staley and a rendition of ‘Black Gives Way to Blue’ dedicated to their erstwhile pipesman.
It was abundantly obvious throughout that Staley’s untimely departure from this world has left an insatiable void at the heart of Alice in Chains. Cantrell’s vocals seemed to overrun the newer material, though the trademark bittersweet, dissonant harmonies remained in full and impressive effect. And DuVall, with balls of brass and to his eternal credit, gave the Stars in Their Eyes routine a proper fucking crack. I left wondering where in his lanky frame he could possibly have room for such lungs.
But he’s simultaneously the best and worst thing about the current line-up. For my money, Alice in Chains have always been a band driven by an acute and agonised articulation of the bleakest pits of despair and misery. ‘Dirt’ is as eloquent a treatise on self-loathing and depression as one could ever ask for, and an absolute masterpiece. Barely a shred of that dismal, unhealthy sentiment surrounds the band nowadays, and while it’s a pretty shitty thing to get nostalgic about, I can’t help feeling that something more integral and compelling than ‘just’ a freakishly talented lead singer has been lost. The dread-laden stanzas of ‘Angry Chair’, or the harrowing question posed by ‘Would?’ end up ringing slightly hollow on an emotional level, in spite of DuVall giving it all he’s got in the diaphragm-waggling stakes.
But that’s a moot point. Under the circumstances, nobody could ask for more, and it’s hard to imagine a better heir to Staley’s microphone than the dynamic and energetic DuVall. And it’s a trivial complaint anyway, stacked against the fact that here is a band that has gone through more strife than most, and which, incredibly, has yet to implode. It would be satisfying just to see them playing nursery rhymes or Status Quo covers, never mind rousing, full-bodied renditions of some of the greatest grungy metal tunes ever committed to tape. A must-see show, by any means necessary, and now markedly more likely to happen than The Mamas & the Papas reforming for a one-off a capella set atop a pit pony (number seven).