Alice In Chains in Washington D.C.

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Wednesday, September 9, 2009 @ 7:24 PM

9:30 Club

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With "new" frontman William DuVall in tow, Alice in Chains 2.0 opened their first U.S. headline tour since 1993 with an initially tentative, but ultimately triumphant, show at Washington, D.C.,'s 9:30 Club. Despite having performed on and off together for the past several years as they figured out whether to make an honest go at it again after the 2002 death of Layne Staley, and with a summer's worth of European festival shows under their belts, there were some obvious opening night jitters. DuVall, formerly of Comes With The Fall who had played with Alice guitarist Jerry Cantrell during his solo tours, seemed nervous and a bit timid at the outset - which no doubt owed something to the added pressure of having his 98-year-old grandmother and infant son in the audience of what amounted to a hometown show since he was born in D.C.

Thus Cantrell was the voice of authority early on, barking at the crowd to get them going after DuVall got a tepid response, even though he too was a bit tense, as evidenced by his flustered response to a broken string during "Man In The Box," the third song in. Instead of soldiering on and swapping out the guitar when the song was done, he chucked the offending instrument mid-song and scrambled to snatch a new one as the band played on, leaving an embarrassing hole when he missed his vocal half of the chorus.

But as the 100-minute set wore on, AIC steadily gained confidence and momentum. Opening to little fanfare with the dreary "Rain When I Die," they delivered a no-frills, no-nonsense, nicely balanced performance that proved quite satisfying - a definite testament to the timeless quality of their material, much of it from the landmark Dirt album. Indeed after the band closed out the main set with the propulsive "Would?" the capacity crowd loudly clamored for more, making the three-song encore capped by "Rooster" genuine and indeed earned instead of merely obligatory.

DuVall really started coming out of his shell as the band aired the shuddering new epic "A Looking In View" from the soon-to-be released Black Gives Way to Blue, a track he could actually claim some ownership of. He had greater command and authority from thereon out, and though far from being a showboat or cheerleader definitely carried himself more like a frontman for the rest of the evening.

And he smartly did not try to "be" Staley, whose brooding presence embodied AIC's "dark, slow, creepy tunes," as Cantrell described them when introducing the schizoid new dirge "Acid Bubble" whose ominous lurch gave way to several jarring break-neck breakouts. DuVall was cordial and engaging by comparison - after shaking off the initial nerves - offering what a "meaningful first night" it was and how it was "about opening new doors as well as walking through some old ones."

DuVall's voice is similar to, but distinctive from, Staley's, pitched a bit higher and perhaps a tad "warmer," if that's the right word, as it is not so much soaked in woe, even during Staley's tragically autobiographical "Junkhead." More importantly, he pairs perfectly with Cantrell, leaving the band's rich trademark harmonies intact. And they were spot on from the get-go at the 9:30, especially during "Angry Chair" and the originally mostly unplugged "Nutshell," "I Stay Away" and "No Excuses," which were given an electrified kick in the ass here. Yet they remained gorgeous and lush, as the folksy tandem vocals helped keep things in check.

Musically, the band - rounded out by drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez - were tight, heavy (with DuVall's rhythm guitar playing adding some heft) and kept things flowing nicely from the punchier "Dam That River" and "Again" to the aforementioned mellower material and the grim sludge-fests "Love Hate Love" and "A Looking In View." Once Black Gives Way to Blue is out, they might want to consider opening with the rousing "Check My Brain," instead of keeping it for the first encore. Crunchy and incredibly catchy thanks to its booming hooks and surprisingly bright chorus, it'd be a perfect table-setter and give DuVall a chance to assert himself right off the bat. Just a thought.

As is it, it's just good to have Alice in Chains back - and not as some karaoke act, tribute band or pathetic grunge rock nostalgia trip. Sure, it was great to hear the old classics, but the new material is rock solid and DuVall certainly seems capable of not merely following in Staley's footsteps, but taking the reins on his own and seeing what new doors the band can walk through in the future.

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