20 Years Ago: Layne Staley Performs One of His Final Shows With Alice In Chains for ‘Unplugged’
When Seattle grunge icons Alice In Chains arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theatre on April 10, 1996 for a live taping of MTV Unplugged, it’s unlikely anyone involved was aware of just how historic the performance would be. As one of the final concert appearances by the late Layne Staley, it seems only fitting that the recording (later released as both a live album and DVD simply titled Unplugged) would be remembered as one of the band’s all-time greatest shows.
At the time, it was just great to see Alice In Chains at all. The recording for Unplugged came after an extended period of inactivity for the group: The concert (which aired the next month), was their first gig in roughly two and a half years, amid a turbulent period of canceled tours and trips to rehab as Staley’s downward spiral of drug abuse and depression worsened. Based purely on the magic captured that evening, you’d never know it.
For fans, what makes Unplugged so captivating is that it's an extension of the band’s prior work. Unlike their peers in Nirvana who stepped well outside their sonic comfort zone in 1993 for their own legendary installment of Unplugged, Alice In Chains already had a long history of acoustic recordings, most notably on their haunting EPs Sap (1992) and Jar of Flies (1994). The MTV show's format provided the perfect opportunity to showcase those songs, along with stripped-down versions of the band’s usually heavier material.
And while Unplugged wasn’t a huge departure from the Alice In Chains fans already loved, Unplugged offered a kind of cohesion between their acoustic and electrified material, made all the more vital by the intimate setting. On top of that, the group (backed for the first time by second guitarist Scott Olson) also proved they surely didn’t need stacks of amps to sound amazing.
In fact, the clarity of the recording only illustrates the skill of Alice In Chains’ members. If you’re not wowed by Jerry Cantrell’s masterful guitar playing, there’s also his intricate harmonies with Staley. Meanwhile, bassist Mike Inez plays the holy hell out of his bass, filling the empty auditory spaces with thick, melodic fuzz while locked in a steady groove with drummer Sean Kinney. Staley, of course, provides the soulful, inimitable croon that made him a legend, gently gliding between a low-octave rumble and breezy falsetto with remarkable grace.
Aside from the acoustic arrangements, what’s also astonishing is how tight the performance is, even though the band were anything but at the time. Cantrell played the show extremely sick with food poisoning, after eating a hot dog earlier that day; Staley, on the other hand, was suffering from rapidly declining health due to his drug use. When he spoke between songs, there was a palpable weakness and fragility in his voice that’s chilling to hear now, knowing his eventual fate. On that evening though, he held nothing back.
The final piece of the puzzle, however, was the doozy of a set list. Filled with classics from throughout their career (although noticeably missing anything from their 1990 debut, Facelift), Alice In Chains masterfully put together a performance that would appeal to casual fans while satisfying the die-hards. The show begins with a nod to the acoustic EPs, opening with "Nutshell" from the multi-platinum Jar of Flies EP, then transition into the Eastern eeriness of Sap's opening track “Brother,” before jumping back to Flies for the hit single “No Excuses.” From there, the band dig in to the “reinvention” portion of the performance, leaning heavily on acoustic versions of favorites from 1992’s Dirt and their self-titled 1995 album that take staples like “Rooster,” “Down In A Hole,” “Heaven Beside You” and “Would?” to more sublime and nuanced levels than previously heard on their original versions. The must-have inclusion of Sap favorite “Got Me Wrong” later in the set and the first-ever unveiling of “Killer Is Me,” round out the proceedings.
But, like Nirvana's Unplugged, the tragedy of the show is the events that transpired after recording it. That July, AIC played their final shows with Staley – a four-night run supporting KISS – that ended July 3 in Kansas City. That night, Staley overdosed on heroin and was rushed to the hospital, prompting the band to go on yet another hiatus. That would be Staley’s last show before the troubled singer entered a reclusive period for several years, leading up to his death from an overdose on April 5, 2002.
And that’s what ultimately makes Alice In Chains' performance for Unplugged so much more: It's a fleeting moment preserved forever...a documentation of a final contribution from one of the great vocalists of our time.