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Alice in Chains still grinding the grunge at First Ave

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It's been more than seven years since legendary Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley died due to a drug overdose--but this isn't simply a bygone notion to the faithful hundreds who showed up in support of  the Seattle grunge rockers last night at First Avenue: it's a repetitious tribute.

Indeed, many donned black tees bearing the face of their fallen keystone, but much was to be reckoned with the current lineup. With the leather-clad, afro'd up William DuVall now at the vocal helm, the rest of the original members (Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, Mike Inez) looked as collected and confident as if they had just finished up Jar of Flies.

The opener, "Rain When I Die," brought everyone right back to the signature bee-buzz drone and bone-deep riffs. The house was a myriad of galavanting linebacker boys (giddy and tipsy, no less), middle-aged dudes in gray track suits and, yep, cross-dressers, who could all but wade through the musical sludge that was offered up sacrificially like Artax in the Swamps of Sadness.

When it came time for wonderment, it was nowhere to be found. The first half had the '90s heroes as stormy as they were deliberate, grinding out new tunes from their as-yet-unreleased album Black Gives Way to Blue as well as killer cuts like "Again," "Down in a Hole" and the Grand Theft Auto dandy "Them Bones."

And yet it occurred to me last night that AIC didn't build themselves on tremendous amounts of flash, fretting or even heavy metal (Cantrell's brief but enrapturing solos illustrate). They honed a basic craft--grungy harmonies amidst chordal distortion - that few could put a finger on and they stuck to it. Last night, it garnered plenty more of the listening rather than the moshing type.

That's not to say they lack any shred of dynamism. Cantrell made it clear that he still had it as his stringed dips and bends shone as brightly as his bejeweled wrist. When tag-teamed with DuVall, who evoked an orgasmic guitar-meets-mic-stand frenzy on "Angry Chair," it was almost better than album-quality.

At this point, the crowd-pleasers came in full force--so much so that it seemed we were becoming Staley himself, overwhelming the two singers on their acclaimed "Man in the Box," "Would?," and the encores "No Excuses" and the mightily-smooth classic "Rooster."

After the Coronas were drunk, and the double-fisters got, well, drunk, Cantrell led the way off-stage, guiding the pioneers by the light of his billowing blond hair. Before him were the children that borrowed and learned his riffs; the ones whose following only increased after that tragic April day in 2002. And at age 43, his 20th year in Alice in Chains, that's all he could ask for.