July 30th 1996, Alice In Chains released their MTV Unplugged album. Recorded live on April 10th, 1996, at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music’s Majestic Theatre for MTV’s legendary acoustic television series. It was Alice In Chains’ first public appearance as a band for over two years, having not toured behind the release of their self-titled third studio album. The last show they played as a band before MTV Unplugged was at a benefit for Fishbone bass player Norwood Fisher in LA on January 7th, 1994, two years and three months earlier. They played four acoustic songs at that show, all from the Sap and Jar Of Flies EP’s. Also on the bill that night was Primus, Rage Against The Machine, Tool and Porno for Pyros, who played full electric sets. Before the Norwood Fisher benefit, the band’s last performance was on November 4th, 1993, in Sydney, Australia.
In the intervening two-plus years, the band made several attempts to start touring. They were booked to play Woodstock in 1994. They were also booked as openers on Metallica’s summer tour of ’94 called “Shit Hits The Sheds” or simply “Summer Shit 94, ” including bands like Danzig, Suicidal Tendencies and Candlebox as opening acts.
In preparation for the Metallica tour and the Woodstock ’94 appearance, Alice In Chains began rehearsing at the Moore Theatre in Seattle. Initially, Layne Staley was absent from these rehearsals. Throughout the band’s gruelling 92/93 touring schedule in support of their second album, Dirt, Layne’s addictions had become all-consuming, and he checked into a rehab facility to overcome his illness.
When Layne finally did make it to the rehearsals, he didn’t come the way the other members expected. Sean Kinney said, “We were rehearsing at the Moore Theatre to get ready for Metallica. Layne was in a treatment place, and we’d been rehearsing ourselves. Nobody had talked to him; he’d been gone all that time. He just showed up, and there were bad circumstances. It just wasn’t happening. We lost a lot of trust in him. Lost some trust in each other for a while.” Realising the situation was not good, and Layne was in no fit state to begin touring, the band held a meeting in which they agreed to cancel the Metallica tour, the Woodstock date and any other scheduled appearances.
The music press had a field day; speculation was rife about the fate of Alice In Chains. Each band member busied themselves, just not with anything related to Alice In Chains. Mike Inez joined Slash’s Snakepit in 1994 and recorded the album “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” Jerry would remain busy composing songs for a solo album, which would have been his debut. However, these songs mostly ended up on Alice In Chains’ third self-titled album, which would be released in November 1995.
Having struggled with addiction, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready met bassist John Baker Saunders in a treatment centre in 1994 and hit it off. Eager to start a band on release from the facility, they added Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin to the fold. They then needed a singer. McCready approached Layne Staley, knowing he’d also just come out of treatment, and thinking he might find some strength playing music surrounded by fellow recovering addicts, he made the call. Layne accepted. The band called themselves Mad Season. They entered the recording studio in the winter of ’94, with their only album, “Above, ” released in March of ’95.
Alice In Chains finally reconvened in April 1995 to begin work on their third album, which would be released in November of that year. After its release, fans were ready for a tour, but Layne categorically refused to do a tour or promotion. Jerry Cantrell said, “That was another number-one record. That record took a long time because we were all in a bad space. Things had really taken a turn for us. I was not in a good space, and Layne wasn’t either. Still, I think it’s one of our great records. That’s a career move I wouldn’t recommend repeating for anybody; stop touring with two number-one records back-to-back.”
So it was a huge surprise when the band announced they would perform their set on MTV’s legendary “Unplugged” series, to be shot on April 10th, 1996, in New York City. The acoustic format suited Alice In Chains more than most bands of the era. Their hugely successful EP’s Sap and Jar Of Flies were predominantly acoustic fare. In the weeks running up to the recording, the band again set up rehearsals in Seattle.
By all accounts, these rehearsals were only marginally more productive than the ones that were aborted before the cancelled summer tours in 1994. Jerry said at the time, “Rehearsals and this band are two words that don’t really go together. We messed around for a few weeks, but it’s not like we ever rehearse anyway. [Laughs] Everyone always shows up at different times, and we usually just talk and goof around anyway. But we got in a few good rehearsals.”
MTV Unplugged producer Alex Coletti attended one of these Seattle rehearsals. The executives at MTV were quietly concerned about whether the band were up to it, and Layne’s health in particular. Coletti said of attending the rehearsal, “Before the show, I went to Alice in Chains’ rehearsal space in Seattle. When I walked in, I was happy to see Layne eating a bucket of chicken. He had on fingerless gloves that were all greasy, so he wouldn’t shake my hand, but I got the elbow shake. He was really friendly. Seeing him eating that chicken just blew away my concerns about what condition Layne was gonna be in. He was really in a great place. I think he was still in good health when he got to New York.”
Recording took place at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music’s Majestic Theatre in New York City. While the set design was suitably moody, the ambience was heightened by the addition of giant white candles placed all around the band. These candles were bought by Layne at Seattle’s Pike Place Market and brought across the country for the recording. The band also drafted a second guitarist for the recording. Scott Olsen, a talented guitarist, bassist, music producer and recording engineer, was a friend of the band from Seattle who was also a member of Heart.
The poignancy of Alice In Chains Unplugged is devastating. There’s no hiding the fact that Layne is in deep trouble. His paper-thin frame clings to the mic, sunglasses and fingerless gloves hide his eyes and hands from the world. Yet he delivers a performance that turns a mirror to us all and makes us question the fragility of life and the beauty of the human condition.
Opening the show, Jerry Cantrell is on stage alone, strumming the opening refrain of “Nutshell.” One by one, each member joins him; Mike Inez, Sean Kinney and Scotty Olson make their way on stage, adding their part. With each member’s arrival, the audience cheers. Lastly, to a louder and more emotional ovation from the crowd, a visibly more frail Layne Staley than the one we had become accustomed to in the years before walks on stage, taking his place on his stool, and sings, “We chase misprinted lies..”
From here, the band takes us on a powerful journey. There’s an odd dichotomy watching the performance; the band are in complete control. They deliver each song with beauty, grace and real emotional depth, yet the fragility of Layne creates an edge of your seat sensation, as though it could fall apart at any minute. But he never does lose it.
Sean Kinney said of the run-up to the recording and of the recording itself, “…Up to the moment we recorded, it was just a nail-biter. Barely any rehearsing at all, guys not showing up, the same shit. We rolled out there, and everything worked. Right then is when I knew, “ok if we never do anything again, I’m good with this..”
The track list chosen by the band pulls songs from the acoustic EPs, their second album Dirt, and their latest album at the time, self-titled, or “Tripod” as it became known. There were no songs played from their debut album Facelift, although Cantrell stated that the band was considering playing the songs “Love, Hate, Love” and “We Die Young” for the set, but ultimately chose not to, chiefly due to limited time.
Alice In Chains MTV Unplugged became a fan favourite almost immediately; for many, it’s the greatest MTV Unplugged of the era. It’s profoundly melancholic but feels triumphant. The band’s humour is on display, too. They manage to give Metallica, who were sitting in the front row, a nod, breaking into the intro of both Battery and Enter Sandman seamlessly in between their own iconic tunes, to which you hear the crowd’s delighted response. Mike Inez had the phrase “Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Friends Haircuts…” written on it, also directed at the members of Metallica, who had all recently cut their hair short.
Alice In Chains Unplugged is an extraordinary record from an exceptional band. Everything about this performance is magical. By stripping away the bombast, the chugging guitars, the pounding drums and the rib cage rattling volume, the band exposed their core and bared their soul. Their songs are so well written the hushed acoustic setting only amplifies their power. Listening to MTV Unplugged elicits a rollercoaster of emotions; each song evokes a different feeling. After the last notes are strummed and sung, you can’t help but miss Layne. “I just wanna hug you all!…but I’m not gonna,” he exclaims at the show’s end.