The Astoria is sweaty, smelly and teaming with expectancy. Classic eighties LA metal is blaring from the PA and the clientele’s couture warps the venue back to Seattle 1991. It is a vintage sight and the merry Los Angelinos next to me are reveling in it.
It’s been 10 years since Alice In Chains last performed live. Any hopes of a return were expunged three years ago when Layne Staley took a speedball overdose. Staley’s demise surprised few. When AIC retired from the live arena, Staley drifted into a reclusive existence. His body had decomposed for several weeks before it was discovered in April 2003.
The reformed AIC is the same as when Staley left except for William Duvall on vocals. Duvall has played in Jerry Cantrell’s band and Comes With The Fall. The most obvious thing about Duvall is his eye catching afro and the fact that he is black. If you had suggested to Alice fans a few years ago this prospect, few would have been convinced it possible.
On hearing his voice though, you’d have to reconsider. Like Staley, Duvall has amazing projection ability, not as intense and far reaching as Layne, but nonetheless shows Duvall is up to the task. Dressed head to toe in tight black, some of Duvall’s mannerisms are echo Staley, namely knee squatting at center stage and crocking his head at angles like an insect.
Duvall does this sporting a grin, jumping up and down and fist pumping those at the front. It doesn’t really suit the mood of AIC’s music – well except until We Die Young – but you got the sense that people appreciated Duvall brought some of his own persona to the role, rather than a poor man’s imitation of Layne. Anybody who has seen Ian “I Think I’m Jim Morrison” Astbury with the 21st Century Doors. will appreciate this. At times Duvall eerily replicates Staley with Man in the Box and Rooster virtually like for like reproductions.
Jerry Cantrell was immaculate as ever, from flawless guitar solos (Love, Hate, Love, Man In the Box) to gargantuan riffs (Them Bones, Dam That River). Along with Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney have barely aged which meant AIC looked pretty much the same as they did when they left us. There was no new material on show so the greatest hits were reeled off with a great element of “what next?” Although the set centred around Dirt, all the band’s albums got a look-in bar Sap.
There was no direct reference to Layne. On Sean Kinney’s bass drum, a black and white imprint of Staley in a classic pose adorned with a halo watched on. For the encore Duvall showed up alone for a few moments saying a few words of thanks. Cantrell, Kinney and Inez thn re-emerged sporting afro wigs. This was odd, but on the flipside this could have been a moping, tribute gig which evidently everybody was glad it wasn’t.
Whether AIC carry on to pastures new from here remains open-ended. Sean Kinney hinted at it, with an emotional address that they will always play if we kept coming. Any new AIC material is unlikely to register much of a blip in today’s climate. But even if AIC don’t play another show after this tour, or even record another song, one feels they did what they wanted and needed to do, just one last time for themselves and their fans, to play the songs and to reignite a bond that had been severed. If this really was goodbye then it was “thank you very much and good night,” as Layne would say.