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Alice in Chains, Gone Normal?

By Dave McKenna
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 7, 2009

Seattle's rock history is full of frontmen who couldn't be saved from themselves: Just from the grunge scene, Nirvana and Mother Love Bone went away for good after losing their leaders, in Hendrixian fashion, to the local deathstyle. Alice in Chains took a long break after the overdose death of original singer Layne Staley in 2002, but has returned with a replacement, William DuVall.

DuVall can sound exactly like Staley, and does so on the band's soon-to-be-released "Black Gives Way to Blue," its first original CD in 14 years, and he mimicked Staley's phrasing throughout AIC's Friday performance at Washington's 9:30 club. Still, even with founding guitarist Jerry Cantrell reprising his famous humbuckers-through-a-wah-wah licks, the show was hard to watch without dwelling on how different the new singer was from the original.

Alice in Chains was the grungiest of the acts that made the Seattle-centric "Singles" soundtrack; its signature sound featured the high-low vocal harmonizing of Staley and Cantrell and the dirge rhythms of drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez. The tunes' dark themes were amplified by Staley's troubled persona and and how deathlike he looked.

DuVall looks like "American Idol" near-miss Justin Guarini. Even more damaging: DuVall seems incredibly well adjusted. He took time out during the 9:30 set to say hello to several generations of his family, from his 98-year-old grandmother to his infant child, sitting together in the balcony.

Yet AIC's first-wave material forced DuVall to sing again and again about desperation. On the smash anthem "Man in the Box," which conjures Black Sabbath on cough syrup, DuVall shrieked: "Won't you come and save me?" And "Down in a Hole" had him and Cantrell yelling, "I don't know if I can be saved!" DuVall needs to be saved from nothing but normalcy.

There's a reason AC/DC replaced Bon Scott with a guy who looked like he'd already cruised on the highway to Hell, and why Styx, after tossing Dennis DeYoung off the tour bus, went out and found a singer who not only sounded just as wimpy as DeYoung, but looked as wimpy, too.

DuVall was aware that the re-formed group risks being reduced to a tribute band. "So we're not just here to play all the old songs," he told the crowd in the sold-out house, before introducing material from the new CD. Of the fresh batch, "Check My Brain" was revelatory. The song, which Cantrell wrote about his move from the Great Northwest to Southern California, has a chorus that not only rocks as hard as vintage AIC, but is also humorous, which couldn't often be said about the band's old-school output. If Alice in Chains 2.0 has a future, look for more giggles.

At night's end, the band delivered "No Excuses," a Chains standard that, while having a jangling, almost Mamas and Papas feel, left DuVall to try to convey the message of misery and pain that Staley always did. DuVall and Cantrell nailed every note, so fans who came of age during grunge's heyday were transported back. Well, as long as they closed their eyes.

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