Goddam Duff McKagan is cool. Unspeakably, unutterably cool in fact. Along with Slash he still maintains that air of unassailable authority as he strides on stage, low slung bass and punk rock attitude very much to the fore and whether you see him with Walking Papers (as here), Loaded or Velvet Revolver you can see the star quality that enabled him to rise from the ashes of Guns ‘n’ Roses with his reputation not only intact, but on the rise. Furthermore, when you add the rhythm machine that is Barrett Martin (the legendary musician involved in, amongst other things, Screaming Trees and QOTSA) into the picture, the associated band becomes an ever more appealing prospect. Aside from the aforementioned living legends, Walking papers also boast the obscenely talented Jeff Angell on vocals and guitar and the effervescent Benjamin Anderson on keyboards and together the four piece all but reduce Birmingham’s Academy to smoking rubble. With attitude to spare, the band play hard driving rock, all thundering bass, Rolling Stones-worshipping vocals and liquid guitar solos. The band’s second track opens with a pile driving beat and sounds like the stooges crossed with QOTSA and Motorhead. It’s the sort of stripped down , pure-of-heart rock n roll that seems to have found favour once more via the widely praised antics of Rival Sons and Scorpion Child and the walking papers play with a proud and gritty determination, Barrett in particular sporting a huge grin as he hammers the skins with a fury that shakes the very stage. The third track appears, filled with gloriously old school organ and aching feedback, as the band adopt a bluesy posture that feels entirely natural. It also helps that Jeff is a mean guitarist as well as a whiskey-tonsilled vocalist of some note, his nicotine-stained vocals soaring through the venue as he slams away at his guitar with a punk rock vigour that sees the sweat fly from his brow. In many ways Walking Papers are the band audioslave should’ve been and between the blistering, bluesy breaks and pulverising percussion they win the crowd over with their style and powerful hooks. Not afraid to vary the pace a subtle and moody piano led track lets Jeff show his moves and he proves a hypnotic figure -part Black Crowes shaman part Clutch-loving preacher of rock ‘n’ roll, a notion further hammered home as he powers straight into the heart of the crowd during the final song as band and audience alike look on in awe. It’s pure rock ‘n’ roll theatre and it leaves the crowd mesmerized.
Eliciting a huge cheer , Ghost take the stage amidst a fog of dense incense smoke. Dressed in sombre costume the band arrive without Papa in sight, and immediately power into the brief instrumental intro ‘Infestissumam’. Sound-wise the choral backdrop unfortunately overpowers everything else although the sound does balance fairly quickly and Papa takes the stage in full regalia to deliver his dark sermon via ‘Per Aspera ad inferi’. A huge bass line leads into ‘Con clavi con dio’ which sounds rather like Metallica covering The Doors. ‘Stand by him’ is a monstrously ghoulish stomp somewhere between ‘my girlfriend’s girlfriend’ and Rob Zombie’s calculated shock-rock shtick. The rest of the set delivers the atmospheric ‘prime mover’ and the driving ‘year zero’ whilst the grand finale ‘Monstrance clock’ sees the entire audience singing the hymn-like chorus “come together, together as one, come together, for Lucifer’s son” highlighting just how large a following the band have gained in recent years. It’s a fine show, and for a number of fans clearly the evening’s highlight, but for SonicAbuse The Walking Papers’ more earthy rock ‘n’ roll vibe was the highlight of the support bands. Nonetheless it was a decent showing from a band who seem to be only growing in stature at the moment.
Alice in Chains. The number of plaid shirts dotted around the venue highlight the enduring appeal of the band and with new album ‘the devil put dinosaurs here’ placing the band firmly in the here and now there are plenty of new fans here too. For many AIC represent the best of the 90s grunge bands and their triumphant return with the stunning ‘black gives way to blue’ was one of the musical highlights of 2009. Metallic and yet laden with melody, their monstrous guitar assault is the product of Jerry Cantrell’s furious riffing and, in William DuVall, the band now not only have a vocalist of power and precision, but also a most capable guitarist for Jerry to spa against. The rhythm section, meanwhile, is one of the most underrated in rock history with Mike Innez delivering bass runs that shake the very foundations of the building and Sean Kinney one of the most adept and intricate drummers playing in hard rock today. For evidence of Sean’s inventive skill, just listen to the brilliant intro to ‘no excuses’ and marvel at the flourishes that he delivers with seeming ease. The set list is nothing short of a revelation, mixing up classic gems and rarer songs with the highlights of the band’s recent output. Opening on the mesmerising grind of ‘again’, the band take no prisoners and, without even pausing for breath, promptly launch into the huge-sounding ‘check my brain’ before taking the audience to the point of combustion by unleashing the ever-green blast of ‘them bones’. It’s a pulverising opening salvo that leaves fans young and old with their jaws wedged firmly open and it says much of the quality of the band’s current output that ‘Hollow’, the opening track from ‘devil’ sounds like it’s been in the set all along. ‘Voices’ similarly sounds enourmous and then a huge cheer greets ‘man in the box’ with William yelling out “let’s light this place up!” – Something the band duly do. The aforementioned ‘no excuses’ sounds as perfect as it ever has, ‘it ain’t like that’ (which opened the last tour) crushes opposition and then we get the stunning ‘grind’ rattling teeth and showcasing the band’s unerring grasp of dynamics.
Unexpectedly Alice in chains dip heavily into the EPs ‘Sap’ and ‘Jar of flies’ with ‘got me wrong’ sounding particularly gnarly and an unplugged ‘nutshell’ sounding beautifully plaintive. We also get ‘we die young’ and (YES!!!!) ‘love hate love’ – a song that proves just how adept a vocalist William is, before the band leave the stage for an encore break. Hearts leap into mouths as the opening bars of ‘whale and wasp’ ring out, although the band sadly don’t indulge the audience with the full version, opting instead for a closing round of ‘down in a hole’, ‘would’ and ‘rooster’ before leaving an exhausted audience overwhelmed with the emotion of seeing a favourite band delivering an awe-inspiring set. Criticisms are few and far between, with only the scant attention paid to ‘black give way to blue’ (the absence of ‘looking in view’ in particular) slightly disappointing, but then when a band has a back catalogue of such obscene quality, it would be impossible to please everyone without playing every track over six hours or so! Overall Alice In Chains played a blinding show. Haunting, beautiful, powerful and crushing, their skill and passion has only grown over the years and with songs such as ‘down in a hole’ still capable of bringing tears to the eyes, the new lease of life the band have gained is truly an example of a band triumphing over a truly horrendous tragedy. Layne will always be with AiC, but what was blisteringly apparent in Birmingham was that AiC are a band who exist very much in the present and their brilliant performance would shame most new bands thanks to the passion, the energy and the sheer love that the band bring to the stage.
Amazing photography by Jola Stiles