In an interview with Boy George a few years ago, former Daily Show correspondent Beth Littleford asked “A lot of people look back at the clothes they wore and laughed. Do you ever cry?”
If I ever had to sum up my experience with grunge rock in high school, that would be the sentence I would give. So, when Alice in Chains announced their show at Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 16, some part of me was embarrassingly curious about what the band—one of the founders of the grunge movement—was like some two decades into their careers.
To be fair, with one unfortunate exception, Alice in Chains is touring with the band’s original lineup, which is somewhat unusual for many of the “reunited” groups playing today. They only lack lead vocalist Layne Staley, who died in 2002 after years battling heroin addiction.
After losing a lead singer—especially one with as distinctive a voice as Staley’s—would lose a step. but Alice in Chains showed that they still had the goods that made them arena rock stars a decade ago.
The new vocalist William DuVall was an apt replacement for Staley. While his voice may have lacked the typical high/low whine/growl that Staley’s possessed, it was accommodated for with various effects. At moments if you closed your eyes, you would swear you could hear Staley’s voice coming out of the speakers.
The current stage of their tour is called “The Acoustic Hour,” with the band performing in a setup much like their 1996 MTV Unplugged appearance. Musically, it was a revelation to hear the songs stripped down to their basics. If you squirm nervously as much as I do at your flannel-wearing past, this arrangement is something of a relief. The acoustic sets revealed smartly crafted songs,, with great melodies and vocal harmonies running throughout.
A big complaint I kept hearing from the masses during the show was that it wasn’t the same without Staley on stage with the band. While this may be true, the present version of band more than made up for it. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell and DuVall’s harmonies were quite on target, and at times beautiful. (Beautiful in the same way a black eye looks as it fades back into the skin. There are dark things happening in the music and lyrics, and the band never lets you forget it.)
While Alice in Chains’ songs tended to shed light on—and often glorify—the addict’s lifestyle, Staley absence has given these songs another layer of meaning. They are now cautionary tales.
Despite the heavy subject matter and often contrived lyrics (which is how many of Alice in Chains’ other songs now seem), the band never seemed hokey. By the end of the concert, the already appreciative crowd was hanging from the rafters with the performance of “Rooster,” their ‘90 hit that now serves as an antiwar rallying cry with the band.
As images flashed upon the backdrop of President Bush and VP Cheney juxtaposed with images of the Vietnam War, what could have been seen as a band struggling to find relevance instead seemed like something more. The band were looking back at the past with a reticent glare, all while living in the moment.
While I cringed with embarrassment at my own past during the show, the members of Alice in Chains seemed comfortable with theirs, and happy within their own skins. At the close of the show, I was right there with them, ready for someone to snub the rooster, I’d finally com to terms with my grunge rock past.
Now where are those flannel shirts, long-john pants and cut-off jean shorts?