Alice In Chains: Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a gig in London, and even longer since I last visited Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s great to be back, even if only fleetingly writes, James Combes.

Shepherd’s Bush is a neat mix of the old and new, much like tonight’s band in residence. For the present-day incarnation of Alice In Chains is as powerful, talented and sonically formidable as it ever was – a band not content to just trade on its former glories. With a sixth album in the works at present and new song ‘The One You Know’ proving that Jerry Cantrell’s song-writing prowess is as solid as ever, it’s evident that these guys are in for the long-haul.

No surprise then that tonight’s gig is sold out.

Formed in 1987 in Seattle by founder members Sean Kinney and Jerry Cantrell, Alice In Chains were one of the biggest bands of the nineties. Their second album Dirt, released on 29 September 1992 at the height of the "grunge" phenomenon, sold over 5 million units and is a masterpiece in dark and brooding rock: chilling, heavy, haunting and melodic all at the same time. In 2002 it seemed that the tragic death of original vocalist Layne Staley may have prematurely called time on the band. But, as their come-back album Black Gives Way to Blue showed in 2009, and as tonight’s buzzing audience will attest, you can’t keep a good band down.

Support act Blood Red Shoes – comprising Laura-Mary Carter and Steven Ansell - put in a superbly tight 30-minute performance, full of punchy, 3-minute bursts of riffage and booming drums, with the vocals divided up between them. Not bad considering the Brighton twosome were drafted in to support with only 48 hours’ notice. Equally impressive is the fact that they can make so much racket with their deceptively small on-stage amplifiers.

By 20:45, the place is packed to the rafters and there’s quite a buzz. From the level 3 balcony, I have a perfect view of the stage and, whilst arguably, to fully appreciate the vibe of the gig it’s better to be in the standing area below, you’re never going to get as good a view from there. Especially if you’re a short-arse like me.

It’s been five years since Alice In Chains toured in the UK, which would explain why every square inch of the place is taken-up. On that occasion, they played the huge aircraft-hangar that is Alexandra Palace and turned in a classy, crowd-pleasing performance, packed with old and new material.

A mighty roar greets the band as they take to the stage and the lights come up. The opening chords of Bleed the Freak ring out - a perfect set-opener. But it’s when the chorus kicks in - These stand for me / Name your God / And bleed the freak – that the audience goes properly nuts. The floor below is a writhing, jumping, moshing mass of bodies, arms punching the air, Devil signs at the ready.

There’s no let-up as the band run straight into Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, and Again from their 1995 self-titled effort; the dirty, down-tuned trademark chugging riffage providing the perfect foil for DuVall and Cantrell’s vocals and haunting harmonies. 

The interplay between founder member/co-frontman Jerry Cantrell and William DuVall is the key to the band’s continued success. DuVall fills the gap left by Layne Staley but still manages to put his own stamp on the material. And whilst Cantrell has always provided harmonies and lead vocals, on the recent albums the dynamic has shifted so that lead vocal duties are equally divided between the two of them.

DuVall invites the audience to join in – as if they need to be prompted - and Them Bones and Dam That River become frenetic duets between band and audience. DuVall throws himself about the stage, and high-fives audience members between songs, whilst the rhythm section of Kinney and Inez provides the solid and often thunderous groove that underpins so much of the band’s catalogue. Meanwhile, musical-linchpin Cantrell has mastered the art of being cool with minimum effort. As if in recognition of this, the crowd continuously chants ‘Jerry! Jerry!’ in between songs. With the broad-brimmed hat, beard and long hair, he’s a rock ’n’ roll cowboy. But with just a hint of the country/folk singer about him. He could erupt into a Woodie Guthrie number at any moment.

However, it’s not all crunching riffs, Drop D tuning and crashing drums. After all, Alice In Chains are masters of the acoustic interlude. No Excuses and Nutshell provide welcome changes of pace. By the time we reach Down in A Hole for a further audience/band singalong, the division of labour is evident: the audience takes care of the chorus; DuVall and Cantrell take care of the verse and harmonies.

After 80 minutes, live favourites We Die Young and Man in The Box bring the main set to a raucous conclusion. But the audience aren’t letting the band off yet. 

A few minutes of foot stomping and they’re back. New tune The One You Know is a perfect encore, followed by Got Me Wrong from 1992’s Sap EP. But it’s during the double-whammy finale of Would? and Rooster, that the audience practically takes the roof off the building, such is the volume and enthusiasm of their singing.

Moments later Jerry Cantrell stands alone, stage right. The rest of the band have said their goodbyes but the mighty Mr Cantrell – a lone cowboy in a big hat – soaks up the atmosphere and chats to the audience. He’s in no rush. This is his ranch and he’s quite at home.

It’s an exhausted - but satisfied - audience that filters out of the building shortly after. As far as the fans are concerned, it’s an almost perfect set-list, full of light and shade, the old and the new; triumphant and precise in its execution. It’s true that the band will never be able to play everything people want to hear. To do so would take all night. But in the end, surely that’s a good thing?

No doubt next time they’ll be playing a much bigger venue. And that’s going to mean that, paradoxically, getting hold of tickets is going to be a tricky business.

But we’ll deal with that problem when it arises.

Huge thanks to Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, William DuVall and Sean Kinney for a superb gig. We eagerly await the next one.

The current single, The One You Know, is available for downloading through the usual outlets.