Before the lights went down and revered Seattle rockers Alice in Chains took the stage Tuesday night at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, a cavernous and sparse emptiness filled the space. It wasn’t too long until that gave way to a ferocious spectacle of lights and smoke. The smoke billowed from the fog machines, from the pumped-up crowd, but, most important, it billowed from Jerry Cantrell’s searing guitar. In this live setting, the Alice in Chains cofounder and his bandmates enthusiastically reminded us how incredibly hard they can rock both in comparison to their grunge and alternative counterparts or pretty much anyone else.
The band opened with muscular versions of "Bleed the Freak" and “Check My Brain,” two songs serving as righteous and heavy re-introductions to the venerable alternative band. Not that any was necessary to those in attendance.
Alice in Chains exploded onto the national alternative scene in the '90s alongside hall-of-fame acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. There has always been a contingent of fans who argue that Alice in Chains at its peak was better than any of those bands. Albums such as Dirt, its 1995 self-titled record, and its MTV Unplugged appearance provided ample evidence for their case. Still, for all its successes, Alice in Chains, much like Nirvana, are irrevocably intertwined with tragedy. In April 2002, former lead singer and frontman Layne Staley was found dead in his condo from a drug overdose. In 2011, drugs also claimed the life of bassist Mike Starr. By that time, the band had found a second life with vocalist William DuVall, a veteran singer/songwriter from Atlanta and founder of alt-rock outfit Comes With the Fall.
"New" vocalist DuVall has grown into his role nicely since officially joining the band in 2008. Since then, Alice in Chains has released two records: Black Gives Way to Blue (2008) and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013). Although he sounds remarkably like Staley, he is not merely an impersonator; DuVall has his own style and an energy that translates remarkably well on stage. He could be a star in his own right, but he’s so perfectly suited for this gig, one hopes he never sets off on his own again. And honestly, he appears to be too immersed in and too enamored of this current romance to even contemplate such a career change. He has a passion and a respect for all of the Alice in Chains classics, including the fan favorites they played throughout the night such as “Down in a Hole” and the evening’s closer, “Would?”
During its nearly two-hour set, which contained no opener, to ensure maximum Alice in Chains, the band was fastidiously on point. "Man in a Box" still had that wicked, eerie, wah-wah thrill, while “Them Bones” pummeled the crowd with a force that felt like it had been winding up since 1992.
After giving shoutouts to all the band members, Cantrell dedicated "Nutshell" to his missing friends and bandmates, Staley and Starr. Even after all these years, the standout cut from the critically acclaimed Jar of Flies EP is able to breaks hearts with its dark lyrics of desperation and isolation. One would like to think that Staley would have been proud of the way Alice in Chains has preserved the spirit of the song long after his death.
As for the audience, with a band this beloved, that has so much history, fan expectations were impossibly high. More than two decades since its debut, the angst, the fervor, the rock ’n’ roll rage is still there, and judging from the standing ovation at the conclusion of the night, South Florida seemed equally pleased.