Friday, February 12, 2010

It Ain't Like That

Alice In Chains
The Fox Theater, Oakland, CA
February 11, 2010

There was a time back in the Clinton Administration when Alice In Chains were one of my favorite bands (click HERE for that backstory). However, once Layne Staley died they faded into my past. I was less than interested when AIC reformed several years ago with a new singer and played the old songs on a tour; I didn't want to hear it because I figured they would simply sound like an AIC cover band. The thought of anybody but Layne fronting the band was semi-sacrilegious to me. They had been one of my favorite live bands because of him and the brotherly dynamic he and Jerry Cantrell had onstage. That could never be duplicated, right?

Fast forward to last year and the new version of AIC released an album of new material. Again, I didn't want to hear it, because what would be the point, right? How many bands have reformed with new guys replacing key members and they've lacked the magic of the original band? Besides, how good could the band be after being fronted by one of the most haunted, troubled, and charismatic singers ever to live out his junkie life so openly in his music? How could any new vocalist be able to mesh with Cantrell in any kind of compelling way? The thought was semi-preposterous to me.

However, I finally relented and gave the new AIC album a listen... and, WTF, it was good... REALLY good. The new singer William DuVall sounds *just* enough like Layne but also brings his own soulful voice to the mix. It was enough like the old AIC to get my attention, but the new band had created some great songs that actually take the band to another place. Unfortunately, my doubt cost me the chance of seeing them at The Fillmore last September. It was a rookie mistake and a lesson I should already have learned after all these years. Anyway.....

Tonight's show was completely sold out in advance and it caught me off guard when a guy asked if I had any extra tickets literally 3 seconds after I picked up my envelope from Will Call. Sorry, dude... Joining Umlaut for the gig was Skychick, who is MUCH more selective about the concerts she attends than me. Skychick once saw AIC on Haight Street back in The Day (Yeah, Mookie Blaylock = Pearl Jam... yawn..)...

Image courtesy of Gloomboy

Skychick also saw Zeppelin way before she could buy alcohol legally.

Not long after entering the lobby a guy sporting a Facelift shirt stopped and asked "Are you Umlaut??" (Cheers Gloomboy!)... In the VIP Bar prior to the show we had some quality time with Umlaut friends such as John Marshall and Photo Jeff, who takes all the photos for THIS little web site for a certain band... and all other merch in the room paled to Eileen's vintage Metal Church longsleeve! For the fanboys: There were so many Metallica band members and staff in the house tonight I almost thought they were playing.

Right before the houselights went down 'Kill The King' by Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow played over the PA. Excellent! Meanwhile, a backlit sheer white curtain hid the stage and then dropped as the band eased into the opening sequence of 'All Secrets Known' > 'It Ain't Like That'... The songs immediately set the tone of the evening and perhaps also stated the band's current frame of mind via 2 songs written almost 20 years apart:

"There's no going back to the place we started from..." - 'All Secrets Known'

"See the cycle I've waited for... It ain't like that anymore.." - 'It Ain't Like That'

For the entire 2 hour set I was caught up in how mellow and at ease the band was onstage as they sailed back and forth from old to new songs. The enlightened slowburn of the William DuVall vibe here in 2010 was in contrast to the dark frenzy of the Layne Staley vibe at the shows I saw in the early-90's. I suppose the cliché is AIC are now older and wiser... which is no doubt true... but they're still a great band who still look and act like Rock Stars onstage in the old fashioned way.

Pic courtesy of Photo Ray

You know a band is from the older generation when 3/4 of them smoke onstage, including The Drummer. Real Rock Stars: A dying breed. However, DuVall (the non-smoker) nailed the old songs without sounding like he was merely in an AIC cover band; his effort on 'Rain When I Die' in particular was stunning... and the ease in which he and Cantrell shared vocals was just as stunning. Cantrell also reminded me of his place as Wah-Wah King as he utilized the 3 wah-wah pedals onstage as if he was channeling some classic 70's Porn. Wah... waka... wah wah... waka..

While the killer punch of 'Angry Chair' > 'Man In The Box' was a highlight of the set, I found myself wanting to hear more of the new songs live... and they didn't play my favorite new songs ('Private Hell' or 'Lesson Learned') which was a bit disappointing. I can't remember the last time where THE SONGS being performed were so powerful and driven by strong melodies and dynamics to the point where THE SONGS were like a physical 5th band member standing onstage (No dude, I wasn't high...). THE MUSIC is what AIC is all about now, not their dark past or drama. The songs from the Layne-era give their new material perspective and contrast while the new songs offer closure, or at least an appropriate bookend, to the darkness of the Layne-era. Since I watched the show from the old fart front of the balcony, without sweaty strangers slamming into me or beer being spilled on me, I became completely immersed in THE SONGS to the point where I felt like I was floating a couple of times (No dude, I wasn't high...).

Pic by Umlaut

I have to say it's been really cool getting back into AIC as a result of their new music and not because I wanted to relive my original fandom. I saw Jerry Cantrell on his debut solo tour in 1998 and it just wasn't the same... so it's cool that his road led back to what was left of his band and they've been able to create something new that's as good as the old. Listening to the new AIC album has been the same as discovering a new band for me. I've discovered that, yeah, this band connects with something in my brain... and it just so happens it's a band I had that connection with when I was a younger, different person and they were a younger, different band. It ain't like that anymore... which is probably a good thing, right?

At one point, Cantrell gave a shout out to some of the band's VIP guests including Mike Bordin, Robert Trujillo, and... Tony La Russa. It so happened we were literally 3 feet away from La Russa when this happened and it almost looked like he was about to step to the top of the dugout and wave his cap to the crowd... but then Tony caught himself. Cardinals suck anyway... GIANTS!!

The symbolic moment of the night for me came as the final note of the show closing 'Rooster' echoed in The Fox. The last time I saw AIC in 1993, their body language onstage was much more aggressive and embodied by Cantrell, who literally threw his guitars at his guitar tech instead of handing them to him the entire show... and I don't mean he simply "tossed" them... he THREW them at the guy. It was intense. Fast forward to this 21st Century night in Oakland and Cantrell handed his guitars to his tech at stage left during the show... but as 'Rooster' faded into the ether Cantrell took off his axe and THREW it at his tech... who caught it of course. Skychick turned to me and started to point and say something about it and I simply looked at her and said "I know..." and I'm sure I had a big smile on my face.

If you bought one of every AIC merch item you would have paid $325. On the way back to the car, some pimply-faced teenagers called us fags. There were far more Led Zeppelin shirts and hoodies in the crowd than any other band... Does anybody remember laughter? Me too.

Oakland Setlist Courtesy of South Bay Bret