SEATTLE — Roughly one month after the tragic death of his close friend and former bandmate Layne Staley, Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell returned to the town that made them both famous, and despite the feeling that a big hole existed where his former partner once stood, it was a rocking, if bittersweet, trip back in time.
With plenty of classic AIC material in tow, Cantrell took a sparse but enthusiastic audience at Key Arena on Friday back to the halcyon days of the early ’90s — a time of lank hair, big angst and bigger guitars, before the Bizkit and its nü-metal counterparts were even a twinkle in Interscope’s eye. With one original on hand (Cantrell), one hugely successful modern-day admirer (Nickelback) and one young upstart (Default), the evening’s bill ran the entire G-word (that’s grunge, folks) gamut — and even boasted the presence of one of the era’s biggest icons, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, laying low in the audience and sporting a newly bleached crop.
It wasn’t strictly a night of sweatin’ to the oldies, however; while Cantrell, in his mid-show spot, did haul out many of AIC’s classic tracks, Canadian cohorts Nickelback brought their own 2002 Creed-bombastics-meet-Staind-confessionals metal-edged agenda (rather than, say, Soundgarden-bombastics-meet-Pearl-Jam-confessionals) to the now-standard grunge formula. Seeing both Cantrell and the headliners’ lead singer Chad Kroeger in action, it’s easy to see why the two became fast friends after meeting at a Christmas party last year; both emote and rock out in equal measure — feel-my-pain vocals and major guitar windmills within a single song are no oxymoron for either artist. Not surprisingly, Kroeger mentioned in a chat before the show that even today, there’s bound to be a copy of an Alice in Chains record somewhere in the vicinity of the band wherever it may be, but now, as buddies and tour mates, Kroeger and Cantrell seem to have struck up a sort of mutual admiration society — one which the audience seemed eager to join.
After a short, raucous set from the Kroeger-produced Default, Cantrell took to the stage, with many holding their breath to see when and how Staley’s passing would be addressed (see “Layne Staley, Alice In Chains Singer, Dead At 34″ ). They would have to wait till several songs in; after opening with “What the Hell Have I,” from the 1993 soundtrack to “Last Action Hero,” Cantrell segued into “We Die Young” from the Chains’ 1990 debut album, Facelift. The projection over the stage wall of a large, gangrene-y looking severed hand, also missing a digit, seemed particularly morbid, especially given the rumors that Staley’s heroin addiction had caused the loss of several of his fingers to that very disease, but it may not have had any actual significance to Cantrell.
Either way, he played one more short number, then turned to the audience and said, “I’d like to do something for a good friend of ours who’s no longer with us,” before breaking into the opening cords of “Down in a Hole.” With its chorus, “Down in a hole, feeling so small/ Down in a hole, losin’ my soul/ I’d like to fly/ But my wings have been so denied,” lighters came out from the crowd and were swayed back and forth. Not yet finished, Cantrell then introduced his friends and fellow Seattleites Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, who joined him on guitar and vocals for “one more for Mr. Layne,” a song from the 1992 EP Sap called, appropriately, “Brother.” After the Wilsons’ departure, Cantrell shouted out, “OK, we saved the best for last; I need some loud motherf—ers in the house. Say Aah!” He then launched into “Them Bones,” leading the crowd to shout the backing “Aah!”s during the choruses, before waving and bowing off the stage.
Down on the main floor, the maple-leaf flags began to wave, which could mean only one thing: time for Nickelback. The band obliged with major opening pyrotechnics for their first number, “Woke Up This Morning.” After telling the audience how nice it was to be so close to home (the band hails from nearby Vancouver), Kroeger launched into pills-and-thrills nightmare “Hollywood” and the kickoff track from The State, “Breathe.” An unexpected add of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” rocked out like a bar-band cover would, while the ponderous “Leader of Men” brought a surge forward from the audience. After spraying the crowd down with water hoses, Kroeger asked if the room was ready for some “brand new Nickelback” before unleashing a number not unlike an angrier “How You Remind Me.” Following the rage-filled tale of domestic abuse, “Never Again,” Kroeger switched guitars yet again for the pounding “Where Do I Hide,” hosed the crowd down once more, then threw out the sign of the beast and grabbed a hand-held video camera to tape the audience throwing it back.
Next, the group led the crowd in a chant of “Seattle f—ing rocks!” and introduced a second new song, a thwarted, explicit love-hate ballad. Speaking first of his and his brother’s absentee dad, Kroeger then hit the pissed-off, mournful “Too Bad,” and with one final pyro explosion, left the stage. But it ain’t over till the skinny guy sings the Hit — and play it he did, in encore. First an acoustic, then (“Sh–, that was just practice!”) a full electric version of “How You Remind Me,” with fervent audience participation. One more three-gun pyro salute, and the song’s line, “Those five words scream in my head/ Are we having fun yet?” seemed well and fully answered.