Alice in Chains live in D.C.

9:30 Club
Washington, D.C.
September 4, 2009

Alice In Chains 2009 
Left to right: Mike Inez, Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, William DuVall


Alice in Chains’ Sept. 4, 2009 show at Washington, D.C. ’s famed 9:30 Club was significant for more than one reason. Foremost, it was the band’s first night on its first tour supporting its first new studio album in 14 years. Second, singer William DuVall said he was born in the area and both his 98-year-old grandmother and 5-month-old son were in attendance. Covering one extreme to the other, he said, this show was as much about opening new doors as it was walking through old ones.

It was a special night all around, so why was the crowd so sluggish? It was a Friday night and one of the best bands of the last two decades was onstage, but that didn’t seem to be enough for some. Maybe I’m just used to the more raucous crowds that typically turn out at Baltimore rock concerts—they put your average D.C. crowd to shame.

With no opening act and no fanfare, the members of Alice in Chains—DuVall, guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney—casually strolled onto the stage at 9:35 p.m. and launched into “Rain When I Die,” the first of seven songs from 1992’s Dirt. Cantrell summed up the set later when he talked about the new album, Black Gives Way to Blue: “It’s got a bunch of dark, slow, creepy tunes—imagine that.” While most bands speed up the tempos when they play live, Jerry and company seemed to slow down some of them, making songs like “Angry Chair” and “Sludge Factory” even more ominous and allowing the plodding, menacing new track “A Looking In View” to slide in seamlessly. Two other new songs made their way into the set: the single “Check My Brain,” which already sounds like a classic with its impossibly deep groove, and “Acid Bubble,” which alternates a slow section with another that absolutely rocks—very dynamic.

I am past the DuVall/Layne Staley comparison, though it is sure to follow the band for the rest of its days. (There are probably some people who still consider Brian Johnson the “new” singer of AC/DC.) Layne was amazing. I would never take anything away from what he did with Alice in Chains. Aside from being a hugely influential vocalist, he gave the band a sort of mystique that few others have had. But to me, Jerry Cantrell always has been the heart and soul, the driving musical force. As long as he is there and the other singer is in the same register as Layne, it’s going to sound like Alice in Chains. Cantrell is in the odd position of being both the apparent band leader and something of a secret weapon. I have long thought he is underrated as a songwriter, guitarist and vocalist. On this night, he was at the top of his game (despite his guitar cutting out toward the end of “Man in the Box”), cranking out the grooves and ripping his short, tasteful solos. He didn’t draw much attention to himself, mostly keeping to his stage left post, even though he is the obvious main attraction.

Alice In Chains 2009 

The set list left out many old favorites, such as “Got Me Wrong,” “Down in a Hole,” “Heaven Beside You,” “Grind” and “Over Now”—maybe another reason for the lackluster crowd. The show was bare bones—virtually no production (lighting was kept to a minimum), just the band onstage playing their songs. I’m guessing this tour is a warm-up run and that once the new record is out (Sept. 29), they will move to bigger houses (the 9:30 Club hold fewer than 1,000 people). Aside from the crowd, the only negative from this show was its length. One hour and 40 minutes is not a short headlining set by any means, but they were the only band on the bill and I saw them play a two-hour show three years ago in Baltimore. Overall, I enjoyed that earlier show a little more. But what made this one exciting is that it featured an Alice in Chains that is fully back, looking to the future and offering a lot more than ‘90s nostalgia.

SET LIST: Rain When I Die, Angry Chair, Man in the Box, Them Bones, Dam That River, A Looking In View, We Die Young, Nutshell, Love Hate Love, Sludge Factory, Acid Bubble, Again, Junkhead, Would?, (encore) Check My Brain, No Excuses, Rooster