One question loomed large before Friday’s Alice in Chains concert at Madison Square Garden: How would new singer William Duvall measure up to Layne Staley, the band’s original front man, who died in 2002? On Black Gives Way to Blue, the album Alice in Chains released last year with Duvall (ending a fourteen-year hiatus for the group), the new guy sounds remarkably like Staley. In concert, the similarity became almost eerie: The band kicked off its set by nailing the first three tracks from 1992’s Dirt (“Them Bones,” “Dam That River” and “Rain When I Die”), with Duvall recreating Staley’s vocal lines with the same studiousness of guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who delivered his solos note-for-note. In that sense, Alice in Chains have changed: The show felt more like a recital than an exorcism, as it would have with Staley.
Still, the crowd responded with cheers when Cantrell introduced “Rooster” by saying, “It’s been a long, strange trip, and I’m really glad it’s still going.” It’s going great, in fact: Black Gives Way to Blue has sold over half a million copies and produced three number one tracks on the Mainstream Rock chart. The band’s not on the nostalgia circuit: They’re arena rockers, and the polish they put on their music just comes with the territory. So do fans who know every word to the new songs, but shuffle off to buy a t-shirt during classic tracks like “Down in a Hole” and the ever-creepy “Love, Hate, Love.”
The set, though, cohered well, with the new acoustic song "Your Decision" sliding in alongside 1994’s "No Excuses" as if the two were written in the same era, and the Black Gives Way to Blue track "Check My Brain" just as clobbering as the four older tunes that came before it. Cantrell and company are playing to their strengths, and on Friday, they sounded about as strong as they ever have.
Opening act Deftones, meanwhile, held their own, especially when they played more recent material, which blends dreamy atmospherics into the band’s ultra-heavy attack. Frontman Chino Moreno, who has at times been criticized for sluggish performances, proved to be the night’s most energetic performer, bounding across the stage and unleashing his primal screams.
Before the show, Moreno told Rolling Stone that he has reevaluated his lifestyle since a 2008 car accident that left original Deftones bassist Chi Cheng in a semi-vegetative state. “I watched some old videos of us, and I got choked up,” he said. “It made me think about a lot of the things I was doing and the way I was living, and gave me an appreciation for life. My new drug is sweating. Now I go onstage and I feel lighter on my feet — I feel more agile.” The Deftones and Alice in Chains sets both had an undercurrent of loss. But by night’s end, the overwhelming sense was of rebirth.