When Alice in Chains brought its first tour in a decade to the Bowery Ballroom, there were no mullets, no flannel, and no former frontman Layne Staley. As I took my place by a back stairwell, a bespectacled, soul-patched fan noticed me documenting our shared experience. “Don’t overthink it,” he advised. Absorbing the lead-heavy intro to “Sludge Factory” (from AIC’s 1995 self-titled studio swan song), I took my new friend’s advice, allowed my headspace to go fallow, and traveled back to middle school.
AIC’s three remaining members—iconic guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, and bassist Mike Inez—soldiered through an 80-minute set of metallic grunge dirges, with William DuVall, the afro’d frontman of L.A. band Comes With the Fall, handling vocals. DuVall—more animated than Staley ever was, and noticeably blacker—nearly nailed his predecessor’s self-condemning warble, though he occasionally substituted Vince Neil sneers for Staley’s crypt-keeper bellows. In any event, the resounding chorus of “What’s my drug of choice?” from the song “Junkhead” came off as absurd, considering the reason for Staley’s absence (his 2002 death, attributed to a fatal mixture of heroin and cocaine). Kinney took up smoking after Staley’s passing, and upon launching into “Rooster”—the gritty ballad honoring Cantrell’s Vietnam vet father—the drummer fired up a butt and held up a lighter. The fans responded in kind, but unlike past AIC tours, glowing cell phones far outnumbered lighters in the supposedly smoke-free venue.
The reunion concluded with the 1990 hit “Man in the Box,” the crowd’s elation contrasting the song’s cheerless lyrics and trudging rhythms. A stage dive by Cantrell and a quick train ride later, I was home in time to catch Def Leppard on Leno. I skipped it, though—too much nostalgia for one night.