Well, it wasn’t the “same old trip it was back then.”
View all 12 photos
Alice in Chains took Cleveland into the flood again last night with a hard, heavy show that found the Seattle rockers celebrating their roots while thrusting one mud-crusted combat boot defiantly into the future.
It also kicked off Nautica’s summer concert season on a high note.
It’s been nearly twenty-five years since the head-bangers from the Pacific Northwest released its first EP, We Die Young, and “Man in the Box” heralded the coming of the grunge movement. With its dark lyrical themes and sewer-filthy guitars, the band’s first full-length on Columbia—Facelift—ushered in a new wave of no-nonsense, flannel-flying rockers who supplanted the hyper-proficient, hairspray-abusing, spandex-sporting acts of the late ‘80s. Some of those bands never recovered from the musical sea change, swept into obscurity by the likes of Alice, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam.
But it wasn’t always easy for the new guard, even after commandeering FM radio and MTV in the mid-1990s. Drugs claimed Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood just before his band broke mainstream. Depression (and addiction) precipitated Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain to suicide in 1994. Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley—the voice behind “Man in the Box,” “Rooster,” and other hits—likewise succumbed to his vices in 2002.
Original AIC bassist Mike Starr died under similar circumstances a few years later.
Fortunately, Jerry Cantrell—whose background and harmony vocals are still as crucial to AIC’s sound as his guitar riffs—took up the torch for his comrades. After achieving creative catharsis on a pair of well-received solo discs (1998’s Boggy Depot and 2002’s Degradation Trip), Cantrell turned his attention back to Alice. Accompanied by original drummer Sean Kinney and former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez (who joined in 1995), Cantrell hit the road again—and began writing what would become 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue.
So the AIC that headlined Jacob’s Pavilion at Nautica on May 19th wasn’t exactly the same band that thrashed the Agora in 1990 or supported Slayer and Megadeth on the Clash of the Titans Tour at Richfield Coliseum in 1991. Former Neon Christ / Madfly vocalist William DuVall now mans the main mic for Alice, but flashes of the same dark energy that powered the band’s early work with Staley was in full effect.
No mere knockoff singer, DuVall brings his own distinct look and sound to AIC: His healthy physique and dark features contrast with Staley’s pale skin and gaunt appearance. He also moves a great deal more than Layne ever did while performing. But DuVall’s vocal tone is such that—when blended with Cantrell’s own—the overall sound of latter-day Alice songs like “Check My Brain” and “Hollow” certainly recalls the harmonies (and hits) of old.
DuVall, Cantrell, and company greeted Cleveland with “Them Bones” and “Damn That River,” both up-tempo skull-crushers from 1992’s Dirt. Hailing from 1995’s eponymous (Tripod) LP, “Again” saw the sun-glassed DuVall working the pit crowd down front ($77 a pop) as Cantrell churned away on his G&L guitar. The first sampling of “new” material—“Check My Brain”—found the guys settling into a groove. DuVall swapped his leather coat and shades for a guitar (he wielded one on just about every tune thereafter) and held down the rhythm while Cantrell conjured the song’s hypnotically repetitive string-bend riff (the band routinely tunes down ½ step to Eb, the lower pitch lending extra depth and darkness).
Where DuVall and long-haired, black-clad Inez delivered in full-on “rock god” mode, Cantrell proved their straight foil. The guitarist faithfully recreated all his signature hooks (“Love, Hate, Love,” “Grind,” etc.) but didn’t exude the same athleticism. He did, however, make a point to periodically stride from his mic to its mirror opposite on the other side of the stage and play / sing to the folks gathered there. Cantrell mentioned how the band visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier in the day, and used Cleveland’s status as Rock Capital of the World to goad fans to sing louder and move a little faster. His comments about his favorite football teams (Seahawks and Steelers) drew half-hearted boos; we music fans tend to not let our sports affiliations divide us.
Inez stuck close to Kinney, wrestling his basses beneath the mottled shadows, hair flailing, his thunderous low end underpinning the loping dirges and fist-pumping (anti-)anthems. The guy’s a true anchor if ever there was one. Kinney’s kick bass drumhead bore the initials LSMS, in tribute to the band’s departed cofounders.
Anybody in attendance who didn’t get that should probably check their brain.
AIC ticked off several cuts from last year’s overlooked The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, including the haunting “Voices,” sullen –but-bluesy “Choke,” “and serrated, droning “Stone.” Breakthrough smash “Man in The Box” came early—but nearly everyone sang along to DuVall’s verses (I’m the dog who gets beat / Won’t you come and save me?) and mimed Cantrell’s still creepy-neat talk-box / wah-wah riff. Acoustic gems “Nutshell” and “No Excuses” (both from the 1994 Jar of Flies EP) were welcome mood-changers, and a caustic “Acid Bubble” made for an intriguing second helping from Black Gives Way to Blue.
Written some twenty-three years ago for Cantrell’s Vietnam Veteran father, the shimmery, ethereal “Rooster” was a choice closer, but the band took a few extra moments reappearing for an encore.
“Sorry, I was talking with the guys from the Coast Guard over there!” Cantrell said. “It’s their job to keep things like in this next song from happening.”
We can only assume Lake Erie’s guardian angels were pleased with Facelift lead-off “We Die Young” (we certainly were). “Got Me Wrong” was an inspired, balladesque offering from the 1992 unplugged EP, SAP, but the bludgeoning “Would?” (from both Dirt and Singles Soundtrack) was the proper way to wrap up.
The light show was interesting: A palette of complimentary colors shone from gels affixed inside four cantilevered, cargo-netted towers surrounding Kinney’s drum rostrum. Greens mingled with crimson and oranges with violet throughout the performance, and a pair of vertical racks on both sides of the stage bathed Cantrell and DuVall in purples and blues when they ventured toward the wings. DuVall even strode out on a couple PA cabinets to high-five a few fans down front. But we preferred the natural lighting late in the set that illuminated the musicians so you could actually see them and their instruments as they were.
Hamilton, Ontario’s Monster Truck capitalized on their opening slot with a 40-minute set of blues-fueled rage from their debut album, Furiosity, out now on Dine Alone Records. Fresh off a Sunday appearance at Rock on The Range in Columbus, the guys stormed the stage pre-sunset and held court with a roots-rock fury that was equal parts Allmans and Deep Purple.
The quartet issued a pair of EPs while touring with Clutch and Slash circa 2010-11 and cultivated a loyal following with its old-school sound and approach—which owes as much to Brandon Bliss’s organ / keyboard finesse as much as Jeremy Widerman’s snarling guitar riffs and searing solos.
The guys made their presence known on the banks of the Cuyahoga as last-minute ticket-holders filed in, cranking out “The Lion,” “Old Train,” and “Oh Lord.” Lanky singer / bassist Jon Harvey laid rumbling rhythms over drummer Steve Kiely’s palpitating beats while the kinetic, denim-vested Widerman shuffled to the groove at his mic; his two feet were rarely on the ground together at the same time. Buoyed by Bliss’s keyboard swells, the nautical “Seven Seas Blues” showcased Harvey’s range. The pavilion still had large pockets of empty seats at this point, but the guy didn’t care; he projected as if presiding over an arena of tens of thousands.
Widerman contributed backing vocals on those tunes and an as-yet-untitled new track, but occasionally retreated to his amplifier to adjust a few knobs or just bob his head to the glory. The guitarist’s tone is downright gargantuan, but there was something refreshingly human—even childlike—about his enthusiasm last night; he even copped a few Chuck Berry duck-walks across his carpet-square and consulted with Bliss, stuck seated at his keyboard, for some positive vibes. An epic “For the Sun” capitalized on Widerman’s sharp licks as well as Harvey’s soaring, emotive vocal.
“This is the closest we’ve been to home in eleven weeks!” the chipper singer reported.
AIC’s Mike Inez made an early appearance with the Truckers, playing bass on “Sworded Beest”—which enabled Harvey to belt out the song with a dread-locked roadie.
Sorry, no concert photos this time out. Alice’s people were fussy about it, and the camera credential promised through Monster Truck never turned up. So we returned our Nikon to the car, parked our bums back on the bleachers, and got on with the rock.