On February 13, around 9:15PM, the lights of the Hollywood Palladium dimmed. Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd as Alice in Chains took to the stage.
Most of the fans, myself included, had been lined up outside for over an hour, waiting for the doors of the Hollywood Palladium to open as scalpers, counterfeit t-shirt salesmen and hot dog vendors circled us like sharks, goading us to sell our tickets, buy a fake concert t-shirt and get food poisoning instead of going to the show. It was pure relief when the doors finally opened and we rushed inside to grab a few much-needed beers and stake out a good spot to watch the show.
The Palladium is a 70-year-old theater that has hosted a variety of acts including Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys. The rectangular stage is nestled against the back wall, the room is a giant circle featuring an open central pit encircled with a set of steps leading to a carpeted standing area and two high balconies. While it’s true that Palladium has mediocre acoustics, it makes up for this with its great view of the stage and an intimate setting that can accommodate over 3,000 fans.
The opening band, a Belgian alternative rock band named Creature with the Atom Brain, went on at 8:30PM. They sounded descent, I think. It was hard to tell because I couldn’t hear the singer over the sound of the band’s fuzzy guitars reverberating off the walls. At least the band was energetic, which built up the excitement and anticipation in the room as people continued to file in and press their way to the stage.
After the Creature with the Atom Brain finished their set, the lights turned on and generic rock began blasting from the speakers, but no one left the room. Now the fans were pouring in: Teenage kids dressed in black, middle-aged men wearing band t-shirts and long-haired rockers with trophy wives that looked hopelessly out of place with large purses and high heels. The crowd was now standing shoulder to shoulder and the room began to smell like a batch of freshly baked special brownies, spilled beer and sweat.
The lights dimmed once again and red stage lights illuminated the room. The floor began to throb and the air pulsed to the tempo of a pale, beating heart projected onto backstage screens. Although the show had no official pyrotechnics, the plumes of smoke erupting sporadically from various areas of the pit and the balconies gave the illusion of miniature volcanic eruptions. The crowd coalesced under the red lights into a sea of pumping arms, rocking heads and the sign of the horns.
The music began without introduction, breaking into the first riff of “All Secrets Known,” a song of their new album Black Gives Way to Blue, Alice in Chains’ first album in 14 years.
Time to start living
Like just before we died
This is the new Alice in Chains, which, thankfully, is close enough to the old Alice in Chains to work. Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, and Sean Kinney looked like they barely aged since the 90s and were playing as if they had never taken a break. This was the band’s first headlining tour since getting back together in 2005 and picking up Comes with the Fall singer and guitarist William DuVall to replace singer Layne Staley, who died from a drug overdose in 2002.
“This one’s for you guys!” Cantrell chuckled just before the opening riff to “Check My Brain” exploded from the stage, the distorted notes bending until they sounded like a chainsaw. DuVall and Cantrell broke into the chorus:
California, I’m fine
Somebody check my brain
Their harmonization is every bit as intoxicating as anything found on the older Alice in Chains albums. If I had to describe it in one word, I would call it “raw.” The song is about Jerry Cantrell’s experience moving from Seattle to Los Angeles. He has described it as a sarcastic, ironic take on moving to and living in “the belly of the beast.” This is his personal take on the classic “California radio song.” It’s alienation, pain and beauty woven together and meticulously crafted into a song that has helped a band that many thought would ever get back together return to the stage and the top of the charts.
Everyone in the room was feeling it. Some fans jumped up and down while pumping their fists while others bobbed their heads and sipped twelve-dollar beers. I promptly got an elbow to jaw from the guy next to me, but I didn’t care as long as my ears continued to work and my beer stayed off the floor.
The band played for two hours, performing most of the songs from their new album as well some of their hits from the 90s, including “Angry Chair,” “Nutshell” and “Got Me Wrong.” Cantrell and DuVall’s performance of “Man in the Box” was impressive, with DuVall harmonizing with Cantrell’s guitar almost as well as Layne Staley, who’s vocals have always been one of the most distinctive aspects of the song.
The show ended with an encore of “Rooster” a few minutes past midnight. Sad that the show was over, I made my way to the train station, hoping to catch the last train of the night. I skirted around the mobs of Mexican hot dog vendors assembled at exit as they yelled “Hot dog! Hot dog!” over the sound of sizzling meat and onions and the clicking of metal tongs. I ignored t-shirt vendors and hurried past a line of giggly teenage girls in pajama bottoms and fuzzy slippers that snaked its way around the building. Scalpers had already descended upon the line yelling “Tickets!” Apparently Justin Bieber was performing the next night, whoever that is.
I wondered who in their right mind would choose to sit out in the California night chill, waiting for hours alongside scalpers, t-shirt salesmen and illegal hot dog vendors. Under the pale light of the streetlamps, I couldn’t help but notice how dull and gray the streets and buildings looked. Shoving my hands deeper into my pockets, I contemplated whether L.A. was really that gray or if it was just me. Maybe L.A. just has that kind of effect people. Somebody check my brain.
Click here to see the set list from the February 13 show.