Truth be told, Alice in Chains was effectively broken up well before April 19, 2002, when frontman Layne Staley was found dead at his Seattle home from a drug overdose.
But that event — a tragic anti-climax to the singer’s lengthy history of substance abuse — put an end to any thoughts and hopes that one of the most potent and successful bands of the ’90s would rock again.
Or so we thought.
After reuniting for a Tsunami benefit in Seattle last fall, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez have reactivated Alice in Chains as a going concern. William Duvall, who sang in one of Cantrell’s solo bands, has taken Staley’s place, and the group has made its way from U.S. clubs to festivals in Europe and Southeast Asia.
“It felt right to us,” says Cantrell, 40, whose harmony vocals are one of the hallmarks of AIC’s sound. “We made a lot of great music, and it means a lot to us. It’s something we put down for a long time, but we’re enjoying reconnecting and also reclaiming what is ours.
“The great thing is, it means a lot to other people, too. It’s been a fun ride.”
The ride began in 1987, when Staley and Cantrell met at a Seattle rehearsal hall called the Music Bank and the guitarist hooked Staley into joining the band he was in with Kinney and original bassist Mike Starr, which was then called Diamond Lie and subsequently took its name from Staley’s previous group, Alice ’N Chains.
Combining a leaden instrumental attack with hooky, anthemic melodies, the nascent foursome straddled the worlds of heavy metal and the burgeoning grunge scene in its hometown; by the time its first EP, “We Die Young,” and album, “Facelift,” came out in 1990,AIC was a good fit on any rock stage, whether it was opening for Van Halen or headlining Lollapalooza.
AIC’s journey lasted for another six years (with Inez taking Starr’s place in 1993), including four platinum-or-better albums and a pair of EPs, as well as enduring radio hits such as “Man in the Box,”“Would?,”“Rooster” and “Grind.” But the charismatic Staley’s continuing abuse issues ground the band to a halt after a handful of 1996 concerts, including opening for Kiss at Tiger Stadium. Beyond recording a couple of new songs for the 1999 “Music Box” compilation, one of which was ironically titled “Get Born Again,” AIC was essentially shackled.
Kinney, 40, who also had been part of Cantrell’s solo projects, provided the catalyst for the group’s reunion.
“When that tsunami happened, I was in Seattle and wanted to do something,” the drummer says. “I called up Jerry and Mike and asked if they wanted to get together to play a couple tunes, and they said, ‘Yeah,’ and we called up some other friends to see who was available to come and sing.
“It felt really good, and that kind of got it rolling to where we thought maybe it was time to find a way of doing it again.”
The issue, of course, was resurrecting the band without Staley, although Cantrell at least fi gures the singer would have never wanted the band to become moribund.
“I have no doubt that he’d be totally, ‘What took you guys so long?’ ” he says with a laugh.
Still, both he and Kinney acknowledge that they were worried about how fans would react.
But, Cantrell says, “everybody’s been really accepting of it. The crowds have been really accepting of it. The audience has really opened their arms to (Duvall). And (Staley’s) there every night; it’s kind of like a celebration of his life and what we did together at that time.”
AIC’s colleagues feel the same way. Members of Metallica, Heart, Guns ’N Roses, Smashing Pumpkins, Queensr˙che and other bands have joined the group on stage, and Audioslave’s Chris Cornell, who worked the same Seattle circuit in the late 1980s and ’90s as the frontman for Soundgarden, says that “what they’re doing, I think, is pretty heroic. They’re trying to put a different ending to than the one that they were left with and just change their reality a little bit. I think that’s amazing.”
The question now is what the band will do from here on out. Kinney says he’s happy to see “a lot of younger people” in the crowds, an indication that an appetite for AIC exists beyond the fans it cultivated a decade or more ago. But Cantrell and Kinney are circumspect about future plans, either for more touring and especially about recording new material.
“It’s been all we can handle just to get this thing going,” Cantrell says. “It’s quite an undertaking on a lot of different levels — professionally, musically, between us as friends and also working through the loss of Layne. There’s so many levels of things to deal with that we haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about anything else.
“If we decided to continue to go on, we’ll let you know. We intended to do exactly what we’re doing right now, and we’ve always operated by just making it up as we go along. So I feel pretty good about how we’re doing things today, which is pretty much the same way we’ve always done things.”
Alice in Chains performs Tuesday (November 7th) at the Emerald Theatre, 31 N. Walnut St., Mt. Clemens. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are sold out. Call (586) 913-1920 or visit www.emeraldtheater.com.
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