The cycles of reverent nostalgia keep getting smaller and smaller. In the ‘50s, post-war America dealt with its restlessness by projecting back a century to the time of cowboys and Indians. The American West became the antidote to suburban sprawl and offered a series of wholesome heroes to young baby boomers before the advent of rock and roll music. As the years went by, and more of the past was used up, cycles of nostalgia shrank. Rock stars like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page paid homage to turn-of-the century blues masters like Robert Johnson and Son House. Bell bottoms and tie-dyes overtook us briefly in the ‘80s as a second generation of love bloomed.
Last Monday the cycle of nostalgia grew tinier still, as a crowd of mostly late-twenty-somethings gathered at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall to watch former Alice In Chains’ guitarist and grunge icon Jerry Cantrell bust out some flannel-covered memories. Nestled between the blood-orange colored marble columns of the concert hall, the California crowd looked decidedly Midwestern. Mullets and leather wrist-bands framed an audience that was ready to rock. It had been over eight years since Cantrell’s former band, Alice In Chains, had toured, so we were due.
Alice In Chains formed in 1987 after Jerry Cantrell met Layne Staley at a Seattle rehearsal studio. The two shared the same nihilistic outlook on life and a common affection for Black Sabbath records. Soon Cantrell had asked his old friend Mike Starr to play bass and Sean Kinney to drum in a new band. The four gained notoriety in the Pacific Northwest for raw concerts powered by Staley’s bottomless well of dark charisma and Cantrell’s chord-crunching axe handling. The group’s second album, Dirt, made real rock stars out of them. Anthems like “Them Bones” and “Rooster”—both written by Cantrell—received nationwide radio airplay and propelled the band even farther into the spotlight. Cameron Crowe featured Alice In Chains in his movie “Singles”, an homage to being twenty-something in Seattle in the early ‘90s, and included the Cantrell-penned “Would” on the film’s soundtrack. Alice In Chains quickly released the EP Sap, and the all-acoustic classic Jar of Flies to build on the success. The group seemed locked in.
It took lead singer Staley’s now famous heroin addiction to knock it all down. According to reports from other band members, Staley became increasingly difficult to track down after around 1994. He could not reliably remember lyrics at live shows, and the rest of the group became frustrated. After Alice In Chains’ self-titled third studio album, Jerry Cantrell decided to take a shot at recording his own work. The result was the murky, underrated Boggy Depot, named after Cantrell’s father’s Oklahoma hometown. Cantrell had just finished recording the follow-up to this first solo effort when Staley was discovered dead in his Seattle apartment last May. The album, Degradation Trip, was released this summer, and Cantrell has been touring in support of it ever since. Having seen his friend burn out, Cantrell didn’t want to fade away. At least that’s the story he’s been sticking to.
Jerry Cantrell appeared well-rested as he strutted on stage at the Great American Music Hall in black jeans and T-shirt. He crisply surveyed the crowd, getting his bearings and possibly dealing with the remnants of a slight hangover. His sharp Nordic features seemed to both accentuate and hold up the dark bags beneath his eyes. Cantrell’s early ‘90s blonde perm has been replaced by a long, wispy, uncombed mop hand-parted just enough to reveal his face. Without a word, Cantrell and the band launched into “Psychotic Break”, the first cut off Degradation Trip, a song that features Cantrell’s surprisingly strong voice, and a thick and chunky guitar attack. His backup band included William Duvall from the group Comes With the Fall, who brought his guitar and a tremolo wail somewhat similar to Layne Staley’s. Adam Stanger, also from Comes With the Fall, paced back and forth onstage throughout the show, alternately grinning and snarling at the audience, while Bevan Davies on the drums hit us with the rhythm. Together, they successfully produced the single-key wall of sound that much of Cantrell’s music is known for.
As the story goes, Cantrell locked himself up in his house for two months and did not leave until he had written twenty-five songs, fourteen of which appear on Degradation Trip. For a man with tunes like “Man in a Box” and “Don’t Follow” to his credit, it’s hard to believe that he needed to dig any deeper, or get any darker. But songs like “Anger Rising” and “Hellbound”, which followed “Psychotic Break”, reveal that Cantrell always has another nightmare to share. He closed his eyes and poured the music over the audience like cement. Most of those in attendance seemed unfamiliar with the new work, but we pumped our fists in the air nonetheless.
When Cantrell moved into Alice territory at the Great American Music Hall show, the crowd shed its politeness and started screaming. We recognized the opening chords of “Heaven Beside You”, off of Alice In Chains’ self-titled third EP, immediately. Heshers high-fived balding former metal junkies. The crowd’s response woke up Cantrell too, who up until that point had appeared to be going through the motions. A warm smile replaced his puckered lips and distant eyes as Jerry Cantrell once again became infatuated with his music and his fans. The rest of the band picked up on this new energy too, and played “Heaven Beside You” as if it were their own. Cantrell crunched through power chords on his G & L Rampage electric guitar, improvising the kind of solos that had critics comparing him to Hendrix ten years ago. Surprisingly, for all of the nostalgia in the air, the Alice In Chains songs didn’t feel like consolation prizes. Cantrell looked like he was genuinely enjoying the audience’s response to the standards he created with Staley, Starr and Kinney in another life.
The band followed “Heaven Beside You” with “Would”, a frantic run through a sinister dark forest that Cantrell invented on Dirt. The audience turned the center of the Great American Music Hall into a thrashing sea of limbs, and everyone sang along with the band. Grown men with their wallets fashionably chained to their belt loops held up cell phones for friends who couldn’t be there. Meanwhile, William Duvall did a decent job filling in for Staley, and bassist Adam Stanger whipped his waist-length dreadlocks against the floor. Cantrell did his part too—pushing us farther towards ten years ago. And then, forty minutes into the set, the band put down their instruments and walked away, having successfully woken both sides of the stage up.
It didn’t take long for Cantrell and company to come back for the inevitable encore. Moving from nostalgia to a eulogy for the deceased Layne Staley, Cantrell began “Brother” from the Sap EP. The original meaning of the repeated chorus, “You were always so far away/I know the way so don’t you run away/Like you used to do” has long since been eclipsed by Staley’s departure. The band rounded out the encore with “Down In a Hole” and “Them Bones”, both songs oddly prescient of events that were to come after their original recording. With that, Cantrell waved goodnight to a slobbering audience, and faded off into the darkness behind the stage. We were left only with our nostalgia.