It's a little weird to see a band doing signature material without a key member, one who put a stamp on the songs originally, especially when it's Alice in Chains without Layne Staley.
The remaining members from the band's peak in the 1990s -- singer-guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney -- joined forces with newcomer William DuVall for an acoustic set Thursday at House of Blues. The show was hastily announced early in the week but still drew a big crowd ready to bask in the downcast rock recast in the unplugged format.
Despite a harsh, drum-heavy sound mix, numerous songs fared well in acoustic mode, such as a surprisingly melodic "Heaven Beside You." The understated instrumentation allowed plenty of room for the pleasing voices of Cantrell and DuVall, the latter jumping to the band in 2006 from the group Comes With the Fall.
With Cantrell acting as host for the evening, it's obvious that Alice in Chains isn't thrusting DuVall into the "next Layne Staley" role. Even so, it would be nice if the new member were able to exert more personality and presence. His vocals and guitar playing were capable but fairly anonymous.
No matter. Cantrell, looking every bit the well-traveled rock star with his long, stringy hair and the cigarette occasionally dangling from his lips, was the crowd favorite. Chants of "Jerry! Jerry!" broke out spontaneously at several points.
His singing and guitar work were solid, but the rhythm section of Inez and Kinney was the secret weapon, underpinning songs over the course of 105 minutes with reliable, occasionally inventive riffs. "Angry Chair," for instance, was elevated by an intensity that was impressive for a band without electric guitars.
Even so, it becomes obvious that Alice in Chains basically operates at one very subdued speed. All that minor-key angst started to run together after a while, so it was a relief when a song such as "No Excuses" pumped some caffeine into the mix.
Also nice: a loose atmosphere onstage that was genuinely intimate, including impromptu between-song noodling that brushed against familiar riffs by the Doors and other bands. Cantrell even invited some fans onstage to watch from the wings.
"We're just a humble rock 'n' roll band trying to work our way back home," he said at one point.
Later, he offered the upbeat admonition that "there's a lot of life left to go. It's important for us to keep living."
It was hard to square that philosophy with the utterly despondent "Down in a Hole," but Alice in Chains must know something about surviving.
It obviously still wears its moodiness well.