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(Above: Alice In Chains’ new singer William DuVall has no problem claiming “Dam That River.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As Alice in Chains took the stage Sunday night at the Midland, a large, beating heart was projected onto a curtain. Nearly two hours later, the reformed grunge band proved to the sold-out crowd they were still very much alive.

The band had its foot on the gas and eyes on the rearview mirror. The quartet proved they were once again a going concern by delivering more than half of its new album, “Black Gives Way to Blue.” In turn, longtime fans were rewarded with nearly all of the classic 1992 album “Dirt.”

New singer William DuVall had no problem filling the shoes of Layne Staley, the band’s former lead singer who died of a drug overdose in 2002. While DuVall’s vocals are eerily similar to Staley’s, he puts enough of himself in the performance to prove it’s not just karaoke. In a way, his style recalls H.R. of the Bad Brains. Like H.R., DuVall can be soulful and hard as nails at the same time.

But while all eyes were judging DuVall, there were no questions about who was leading the show. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell was the first member hit with the spotlight, and frequently stationed himself center stage. The band’s chief songwriter, Cantrell sang lead or harmony vocals on nearly as many songs as DuVall, and never failed to elicit cheers with his solos.

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Several times the crowd’s lusty singing threatened to overwhelm the band. Cantrell encouraged the crowd to join in on the chorus of “Got Me Wrong,” but they needed no enticement when the opening line of “Would?” rumbled out of Mike Inez’ bass guitar. Classics “Man in the Box,” “No Excuses” and “Rooster” also turned into massive sing-alongs.

The succession of the three opening numbers on “Dirt” early in the set were so vital and energetic it was hard to believe the material was nearly 20 years old. Later, the already psychedelic “Sickman” was somehow even more trippy, as the band dragged the throng through the sonic undertow.

While Staley wasn’t missed onstage, he was noticeably absent from the songwriting process. Staley had a way of tightening and punching up Cantrell’s songs. Unfortunately, several of the newer songs lacked Staley’s urgency. “Last of My Kind” went nowhere for nearly six minutes. There is an unquestionably great song buried somewhere in the seven minutes of “Acid Bubble.” Unfortunately, it too was content to plod along unchecked at mid-tempo.

While the new material didn’t get the massive responses of the tried and true, they still went over well. There were plenty of hands in the air and heads nodding along to show the crowd hadn’t come out to see a nostalgia act. New songs “Check My Brain” and “Your Decision” should figure into setlists for some time.

It would have been easy for Alice in Chains to take the easy route and cash in. The Doors, Queen and INXS have all lost a charismatic frontman and tried to plug a stand-in into the spot. Alice in Chains have succeeded thus far because they are looking beyond the flannel shirt/Doc Martens set. They’re not preaching to the choir, they’re still looking to convert.

“Sometimes,” Cantrell said, “it takes a few times banging your head against the wall until you finally get through, if you know what I mean.”

Setlist: All Secrets Known, It Ain’t Like That, Again, Check My Brain, Them Bones, Dam that River, Rain When I Die, Your Decision, Got Me Wrong, We Die Young, Looking In View, Down in a Hole, Sickman, Lesson Learned, Acid Bubble, No Excuses, Angry Chair, Man in the Box. Encore: Sludge Factory, Would?, Rooster.

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