Photos: David Bronstein
Londoners have a special place in their heart for Alice in Chains and have had since the band first made their live debut here at The Marquee club back in March of 1991. It’s also been a couple of years since the Seattle foursome have returned to England so tonight at a sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire there is high anticipation.
Before the show I was lucky enough to meet and have a talk with bassist Mike Inez. The band had played in Leeds the night before, their first date of their European summer tour, and Inez had nothing but praise for the Leeds fans saying it was very special. We spoke about the upcoming tour and Inez will be hooking up with Ozzy Osbourne when the bands share the bill on a few select dates (Inez used to be one of Ozzy’s musicians, ironically when Alice in Chains was supporting the Black Sabbath singer in 1992) and how Inez loves coming to Europe because he gets to be a tourist too. But he’s also interested in the art deco building the band are playing in. When I tell him this is the building where they used to shoot the 1970’s music show ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ which would have featured many of Inez’s musical heroes his face lights up, “awesome” he says. We then speak about Roy Buchanan the 70’s guitar player who tragically died too young. I remind Inez that 2018 marks his 25th anniversary with the band. Ironically his first ever show with them was in London. At that point Inez gets called back to the dressing room to prepare for the show and he confirms to me that the band will open with ‘Bleed the Freak’.
Fast forward thirty minutes later and Alice in Chains take to the stage with ‘Bleed the Freak’. They follow this up with ‘Check My Brain’ and ‘Again’. Chants of ‘Jerry, Jerry’ ring around the 2,000 capacity building which Cantrell acknowledges. He wears a hat throughout the show and is fully bearded which has always made him look like one mean badass. But he plays the guitar in the same way and seems to be really enjoying himself. Inez at one point spots me from my lofty position on the side balcony and points me out with a huge smile. Sean Kinney as ever never misses a beat and then there is William Duvall. Given a decade ago the seemingly impossible task of being singer of this unique band, he has his technique down, his voice strong, can play guitar and has really built up an unflinching chemistry with Cantrell.
As important as being the guy at the front Duvall also works up the fans, pumping his fist in the air, clapping along to the songs, jumping up and down and covering most of the stage. When the band launch into ‘Them Bones’ the venue really erupts and this is followed up by ‘Dam That River’, both songs of course lifted from their 1992 masterpiece Dirt.
Everyone sings along to ‘Down in a Hole’ and it becomes apparent that Alice in Chains are a band for the ages. It all still feels so fresh but we are also witnessing classic songs, there is joy in the faces of the crowd who mostly look over 40 years of age. This is the band we grew up on, the Seattle band that never really sounded grungy, more with a metal leaning and they are bringing it home to us tonight. And they are not getting any mellower or quieter with age, Alice in Chains live remain a very loud band and I have been lucky enough to attend many gigs throughout the years to confirm this. But who could ever get tired of hearing these classic tunes at maximum power?
‘Nutshell’ tones it down a bit and is a real highlight of the show and it really is impossible not to let your thoughts drift off and think of what could have been had Layne Staley not chased his demons and been here tonight. Time and again Duvall is singing lyrics that either came from Staley or were also contributed by Cantrell and sometimes, inevitably those lyrics are going to seem personal, perhaps too personal. But Duvall has continued to carry these songs with the respect they deserve. You can still feel that tonight’s crowd feel the pain of losing Staley.
The show goes from heavy to light for much of the night and there is a lovely run of melodies belted out. ‘Heaven Beside You’ from the bands difficult third album is warmly received but the older tunes are the ones the fans are here for. When Kinney starts the beat for ‘No Excuses’ you are transported back to your youth. ‘Got Me Wrong’ seems forever tied now to that unique night in New York in 1996 when they played their infamous unplugged show for MTV.
After that we go way back to their debut album Facelift and ‘It Ain’t Like That’ truly is one of the highlights of the night. The first set of the show ends with the classic ‘Man in the Box’ which never fails to have every fan sing along to the chorus. The band return for an encore and a standing ovation and launch into new song ‘The One You Know’ which sounds really strong live. ‘Would?’ kicks in with Inez’s low hanging bass and the lights come up so everyone can sing back to Duvall by the songs end ‘If I would, could you?’. It’s a startling moment. Final song ‘Rooster’ brings the house down and it’s never a bore to wait for that change when the song explodes into life, everyone at every show one suspects waits for it. What we can’t do is wait much longer for a new Alice in Chains tour. They played just two UK dates this time and hopefully the band will be back soon in support of their latest album Rainier Fog, the much delayed record is due out at the end of August.