Bringing in a new singer is a risky move for any band, made even riskier when the singer being replaced was a tragic or iconic figure. Layne Staley, a singer who turned every song and concert into a wailing maelstrom of self-loathing, would certainly fit into the latter category. Alice in Chains, with William DuVall replacing Staley, has found a savvy solution to the problem: The band’s simply diminished the role of the singer.
Playing before a packed and enthusiastic crowd at the Roxy Thursday night, the new Alice in Chains is now without a doubt guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s band. The pleasure one draws from their hourlong show is hearing Cantrell and his expert rhythm section slug their way through time-tested, molten riffs. This is music that hasn’t aged since the band’s early ’90s heyday, mostly because it’s built from the same elements that make up the music of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath — electric blues slowed down to a crawl and played with a sledgehammer backbeat.
DuVall has the strong, shredded howl the music demands, but he’s a more conventional front man and makes no attempt to replicate Staley’s wounded animal persona. Cantrell is a more interesting performer; with his long, light-blond hair, matted with sweat and covering his pale, drawn face, he looks like a previously unknown Winter brother. It’s his name the aud chants between songs, and they pump their fists into the air on the choruses when he adds his high-pitched, howling harmonies.
In this context, the surprise appearances of Billy Corgan (for “Down in the Hole”) and Duff McKagan and Mark Lanegan (who performed “Rooster”) can’t give DuVall much security. Their cameos make the evening feel even more like an event, but it also has to let the singer know that in the new Alice in Chains, he’s easily replaced.
Band performs Tuesday at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.