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By: Matthew Swanson

Jerry Cantrell - Alice In Chains

Grunge, a term for a “movement” of often sludgy guitar rock music coming out of the Seattle scene, typified by Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and, of course, Nirvana, although brief in its grip on the direction of rock, roughly two to four years, should still be recognized as an exciting explosion of creativity from a central location, making everyone want to drink coffee while crying in the rain with Screaming Trees on their walkman.  The aforementioned three bands summing up that sound, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, are not only great examples of that sound, but they are also all terrific bands in their own right.  Also, given that they came out when I was just getting excited about buying albums, they will always be bands that I hold near and dear, which is why I was so excited to hear that cover bands of those very three bands were playing together at the Abbey Pub in my hometown of Chicago.  This called for a guy’s night out in our flannel shirts, which was the style at time, and I scored extra points for pushing up the sleeves to reveal a long-underwear shirt.  The accuracy of the bands was not as important as the fact that it was an opportunity to sip on some beers and hear live versions of forty or fifty songs originally performed by bands we loved and allow ourselves to reminisce.

First up was Angry Chair, a great name for a cover band, and when they came out, all I could think was that they looked like cops.  They could very well have been, but on that Saturday, in front of a half-empty, not quite drunk yet crowd, they were the glorious heroin addled rock stars they were trying to portray.  The singer did a halfway decent Layne Staley, even if he sometimes sounded more like Axl Rose, but it took him a few songs to warm up his vocal chords.  Even when he was at his best, they still only sounded good vocally when they harmonized with a much chubbier version of Jerry Cantrell, who had a surprisingly angelic voice.  Still, what they did have was an appreciation for the band they were covering and the whole genre for that matter, which is what one likes to see in a cover band.  The singer informed us that this show was a long time in the making, in that the three have known about each other for some time, and finally getting a chance to split a bill with all three seemed like something he was genuinely enthused about.

I was reminded of a lot of things during Angry Chair’s set.  I remember getting Facelift off of BMG for one penny and hardly ever making it past track four, Bleed the Freak, a song I wished they had played. The band closed with Rooster, and I not only forgot that that song kicks some major ass, but my buddy reminded me that the song was about Jerry Cantrell’s father’s service in the Vietnam War.  I also thought of the time when a bunch of us went to our first nudey bar, bear with me, having just turned eighteen, and seeing a girl do a surprisingly sexy dance to a depressing, shoot yourself full of heroin song, Down in a Hole.  I remember the day I heard Layne Staley died, I was pissed off that the death of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes completely overshadowed one of the most distinct voices in 1990’s rock, and a guy in a band far more important than TLC, even if Waterfalls was a great song.  All I could think of to do to counteract this injustice in my own mind was to march right over to my local record store and buy the vinyl versions of Sap and Jar of Flies within the same record set.  Jar of Flies is a record that is soothingly depressing and beautiful, and it still gets as many spins as just about any record in my collection.

Pearl Jam (photo: Lance Mercer)

Next up was Given to Fly, and as they were setting up, it wasn’t hard to tell which guy was going to be playing the part of Eddie Vedder; there was a young, good-looking guy milling around the stage, and he had some terrific hair.  One of my buddies was skeptical, having seen PJ ten or twenty times, but he did appreciate that they opened with Release, which is a standard opener, they played the solos the way they had been altered live, and that they played Forever Young by Bob Dylan, not the one by Rod Stewart.  For Angry Chair, I found myself closing my eyes a few times during the set, trying to pretend I was back in 1993 at a show being played by the real band (does anyone else do that?), but for Given to Fly, to do that would be a disservice; their singer was really giving it his all as a rock star.  He was jumping, kicking, reaching out to the front row, and belting it out like he was playing Madison Square Garden, even if it was just a Chicago pub where patrons paid $12 to see three bands. 

One complaint on my end is that Given to Fly played Black a little early in the set, since that one is such a great drunken sign-a-long and has been heralded somewhere by someone as the 1990’s answer to Stairway to Heaven.  I can see that.  I mean, it is a long song that builds up and nobody knows for sure just what in the hell he’s really singing about.  As I’m typing this section, I’m playing a YouTube clip of Black from the Unplugged set for inspiration.  Why is it that everyone had Nirvana Unplugged in their CD towers, which we so rarely see in respectable homes these days, but there apparently was no disc of Pearl Jam’s Unplugged set in circulation?  They were fricking on that night, as they were many nights in those days, and it was that live energy that people need to remember when they think of Pearl Jam.  For a brief while, Eddie was the most enigmatic front man in rock, especially on their first album, and that’s why Given to Fly got it right having a captivating singer.  Otherwise there would have been no point even trying.  One last point out of nowhere, somebody once said that it sounds like Vedder is saying “I’m gonna’ leave Bennigans” in Yellow Ledbetter, and it really does . . .


Although I was horribly tired and a little more drunk than I had planned on getting when Nevermind plugged in, I was able to get through half of their set by means of a pick-me-up cigarette, which works when you’re a pack a month smoker, and by the sheer fact that the band was a lot of fun and on point.  The Kurt was wearing the dress from the In Bloom video, which is what I think they opened with, the drummer had the long black hair like Grohl and seemed to be getting all the drum fills right, and somehow most importantly, the bass player was as tall as Chris Novoselic and played the bass in the same style: with his long arms straight down, strumming away below his knees.  I was hoping for a bass toss ten feet in the air, hitting himself square in the head like at the MTV Awards, but I was too tired to stick around to see if that was going to happen without a guarantee of some kind.

I told a friend of mine that I was doing a write-up about grunge, and he said it should be called “Grunge Hasn’t Aged Well.”  Having gone to high school during the time that encapsulated just about the entire “movement,” 1991-1995, I was offended for some reason.  Maybe not as offended as a member chosen at random from Angry Chair, Given to Fly, or Nevermind, but offended nonetheless.  To be fair, there are still loads of kids getting into these bands now, as evidenced by the excitement of the 18-and-over crowd at The Abbey Pub.  Whether the music has aged well to people not personally connected to those times, it sounded great to the four of us that night, and if the these three bands came around this time next year, I’d once again dust off my flannel and revisit a day when I was younger and grungier.     


All opinions expressed by Matthew Swanson are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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