The Great (Live) Albums is our new bimonthly column taking a look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
MTV Unplugged, Alice in Chains (1996, Columbia)
First things first: this is not a blog about Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York. That should be obvious from both the title of the article and lead image, but chances are you still started humming “About a Girl” and picturing Kurt Cobain’s bizarre pistachio-colored grannie sweater, regardless. That 1994 unplugged set, of course, looms large in ‘90s alt-rock history, released just seven month’s after Cobain’s April 1994 shotgun suicide and standing—for all intents and purposes—as the epochal Seattle power trio’s final will and testament.
I’ll get around to Nirvana someday. But what I really want to talk about right now is Alice in Chains and their frontman Layne Staley—an arguably more tragic figure than even Cobain, whose turn on MTV’s signature acoustic concert program was no less haunted by the crescent-moon shadow of the Grim Reaper’s scythe poised irrevocably over his pink-hued head.
By the time the Seattle band made it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theater to record their Unplugged set on April 11, 1996, they were pretty much spent. The group hadn’t performed live together in nearly three years, and their last studio record, 1995’s (underrated) Alice in Chains, had been largely recorded without Staley—perpetually battling addiction—actually present in the studio. (It shows. Staley’s contributions on the self-titled LP sound literally telephoned in, or even excavated from some long-forgotten crypt.)
After Unplugged the original, Staley-fronted version of AIC was basically kaput. But you wouldn’t know the band was in such dire straits by the performances delivered on the powerful 13-song set (10 of which made the final broadcast.) Featuring Staley on lead vocals, singer/guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez, drummer Sean Kinney, and second guitarist Scott Olson, the AIC that shows up on Unplugged is a tight, well-practiced unit with no weak links, seemingly eager to shake off the heavy metal sludge of their studio recordings.
The album begins with a moody two-song suite of Staley’s “Nutshell” (from the 1994 EP Jar of Flies) and Cantrell’s “Brother” (off the 1992 EP Sap), a foreboding rolling-fog ballad of loss sliced through by an itchy, serpentine guitar hook. Staley then offers a friendly, vaguely Southern-accented word of welcome to the audience as the band launches into the comparatively upbeat “No Excuses” (Jar of Flies), the harrowing “Sludge Factory” (Alice in Chains) and the searing self-flagellating psycho-drama of “Down in a Hole,” off 1992’s career high LP, Dirt.
In video footage from the Unplugged broadcast, Staley sits slumped on a stool, downcast eyes mostly shielded behind a pair of dark sunglasses, hands clasped in his lap or hanging at his sides. He barely moves at all, and appears to be reading his lyrics off a music stand, Michael Stipe-style. It’s obvious that this is a dude whose physicality has been severely diminished, which only serves to make his hyper-competent vocal performance even more impressive.
That Staley mustered enough courage to put himself on display like this—and kill it, frankly—is bonkers. If I so much as stub a toe, I call in sick. Later on the record when a clearly buoyant Staley says, “I have to say: this is probably the best show we’ve done in three years,” the words glow like rays of sunshine. All the more heartbreaking, then, when a second voice (Inez? Kinney?) points out, “Layne, it’s the only one.” “Well… it’s still the best,” Staley chuckles.
Highlights on the back half of the album include Cantrell’s Vietnam-epic “Rooster,” “Heaven Beside You,” and the Singles-soundtrack grunge classic “Would?”—anchored by Inez’s chugging bass riff (elsewhere, Inez often plays fretless for an added bit of sonic texture.) But Unplugged’s melodramatic peak comes on the third-to-last track, “Frogs,” an eight-minute Alice in Chains dirge featuring a lengthy section of Staley talk-singing a creepy monologue about his impending 28th birthday. It’s an eerie bit of numerology, given the morbid import of the age 27 among dead rockers. (For the record, Staley lived to 34.)
Alice in Chains was always the most unabashedly metal-tinged of the grunge A-listers. But as with other quality hard rock groups, the limitations of the MTV format stripped the band of their Marshall stacks and left them to rely solely on the strength of theri songwriting—a challenge AIC was game to tackle.
MTV’s ongoing Unplugged experiment is a fascinating phenomenon, and I’m sure we’ll revisit the show again before too long. As for Alice in Chains, I’m glad the rest of the band is still touring and putting out albums. And I’m glad Staley got this one final showcase before drifting off for good.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)