Shows I’ll Never Forget: Alice in Chains, Dec. 3, 1991

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At Hirsch Memorial Coliseum, Shreveport, Louisiana: It was five days before my 19th birthday, and I’d received a ticket to see Van Halen as a gift. It was the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge tour, which would probably be my favorite record of the Sammy Hagar era, if I had one. I’m not and never was a big fan of Van Hagar, but I’d never seen the band live (though I did see David Lee Roth solo a few years earlier) and I figured it was something I should do. And, of course, someone else paid for the ticket.

I didn’t know much about the opening act, a band called Alice in Chains, going into the arena. I was familiar with the song “Man in the Box,” which they’d shot a video for, but I was unimpressed. I was in the throes of my years of guitar-god worship at the time, and the one-note main riff of that tune just didn’t do it for me. I bought a Van Halen T-shirt on the way into the coliseum, and little did I know I was making the wrong choice.

The lights go down, and I’m only halfway paying attention until this heavy, down-tuned riff just ripped my face off. I later learned it was the opening of the song “We Die Young,” which was a fantastic way to kick off the show. The most compelling thing to me, though, was singer Layne Staley. He walked out on the stage, wrapped himself around the mic stand and stayed there all night.

Growing up in the 1980s, I was used to frontmen who ran around the stage in sparkly clothes, climbed amps, swung out over the crowd on wires and did all sorts of crazy stuff to keep people entertained. Staley didn’t need to do that. This was a different kind of dude, dressed in all black and just standing there, as if daring the crowd to make anything of it. He oozed intensity, and despite the lack of show, I could hardly take my eyes off of him.

Through the course of the evening, the band played most of their Facelift record, and several of the songs – “Bleed the Freak,” “Sea of Sorrow,” “Sunshine,” and yes, even “Man in the Box,” which I’d previously dismissed – stuck with me after the performance. There was nothing flashy or showy, but it was an awesome performance. The songs were heavy, yet melodic – sometimes melancholy, sometimes angry – and the vocal harmonies between Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell were mesmerizing.

The next day, as soon as I got out of class, I made my way to the local record store and picked up a copy of Facelift on cassette – yeah, I hadn’t completely made the jump to this whole new-fangled CD thing at that point – which got worn out over the next few years. It’s a record that I still listen to frequently.

Looking back, that night was probably the beginning of my coming out of the guitar-god phase and realizing that the song mattered more than how many notes a guy could pack into it.

In truth, I don’t remember much about the Van Halen performance that followed. I remember enjoying it as I watched it, and I remember being annoyed when Hagar sang the Roth songs, but my mind kept wandering back to the opening act. There are moments that, 20 years and many concerts later, I still remember vividly.

Sadly, it was the only time that I’d ever get to see Alice in Chains play live. Half of that lineup, bassist Mike Starr and Staley, has been lost to drug overdoses. There’s a new lineup now, and while I think 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue was a very good album, I’ll probably pass on seeing them live if I get the chance.

I just can’t get into hearing new singer William DuVall sing Staley’s parts. He doesn’t have the power and those harmonies are just not the same. Luckily, I’ve still got this show to remember them by.

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelse
Fred Phillips

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