When the pandemic kicked in full force in March 2020, Alice in Chains founding member Jerry Cantrell had already finished the basic tracks for his new solo album, “Brighten.” And he knew it was likely he’d have a long wait before he’d be able to release and tour behind the album.
“We knew the call was coming and we were watching the news to see what the CDC was saying,” Cantrell recalled. “We pushed it [recording] right up to the line and ended the day before they gave the stay-at-home order.”
The pandemic gave Cantrell the opportunity to bring in several outside musicians to add parts to “Brighten,” and he feels the album gained depth and additional layers thanks to the contributions of musical guests such as Abe Laboriel Jr. (drummer for Paul McCartney), Vincent Jones (keyboards) and Duff McKagan (bassist of Guns N’ Roses).
But finally, some 25 months later, “Brighten” is out and Cantrell is hitting the road. In what shapes up as a busy year, he’ll rejoin Alice in Chains from August until early October on a bill rounded out by Breaking Benjamin and Bush. But he’ll first jump out for a string of solo dates that includes a May 2 show at the Moore Theatre.
The existential pause button that was pressed when COVID-19 whomped the planet back in March 2020 proved to be a double-edged sword for musicians around the globe. And while it was admittedly a challenge for Cantrell, the Tacoma native instead forged on by not only finishing last year’s “Brighten” — his third solo album — but went so far as making this the first project he’s independently put out without the help of a major label.
Coming in at a compact 40 minutes and change, “Brighten” benefits from Cantrell’s songwriting chops that elevate his musicianship beyond his already formidable guitar playing. Among the gems popping up are “Had to Know,” an epic jam that rolls forward on a combination of surging organ runs, layered vocals and cascading riffs that gives it the kind of cinematic sweep you’d come to expect from a film buff who is upfront about his love of Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. Elsewhere, Cantrell brings in unexpected nuances like pedal steel to ear worms like the atmospheric “Prism of Doubt” and the bouncy cynicism of “Black Hearts and Evil Done.” As a longtime admirer of Elton John dating back to childhood, Cantrell got the personal stamp of approval to include a cover of the classic “Goodbye,” which is handled with a brilliant balance of emotion, subtlety and with spot-on string arrangements.
“Each record I’ve been a part of is a snapshot or period of time, not only in my life, but the people that I’m taking that journey with and who I’m going through that process with,” Cantrell said. “It’s being recorded for posterity and once you let that thing out of your hands, it’s out there permanently. You better be OK with it if you put it out.”
With his latest project out in the world, Cantrell is ready to knock off some rust while getting back into live music mode.
“I’ve been sitting on my couch way too long,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t catch COVID-19, but I did catch the COVID-20 and am in the process of trying to work it through. I need to get up there, sweat a little bit and remember that I play guitar in a band. So we’ll be playing a bunch of this record and a lot of “Boggy Depot” (his 1998 solo debut album). We’ll be playing stuff from all phases of my career of writing. I’ve been fortunate to have been writing for a while and written some tunes that have touched some people and I’m aware of that. If I’m showing up, and a couple of them want to hear me play ‘em and I’m going to do that.”