“I would have to say that this is the best show we’ve done in three years,” Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley announces during the band’s MTV Unplugged performance, recorded on 10 April 1996, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theatre in New York. MTV aired the show on 28 May, and the live album version was released by Columbia Records on 30 July, eventually going platinum in the US. One of Staley’s bandmates, it’s unclear who—responds, “Layne, it’s…the only one. It’s the only one we’ve done in three years.” Staley laughs and says, “Well, it’s still the best.”
Before Unplugged, Alice in Chains had indeed been offstage for about two and a half years. The recording of their previous album—Alice in Chains, released in November 1995—was painful and prolonged. Due to his heroin addiction, Staley would frequently miss sessions, and the band, who had drifted apart, wrote much of the material in the studio, stretching the recording time to four months. (This would be the group’s last studio release to feature Staley; in a 2018 interview, Cantrell called it “the sound of a band falling apart”.) They did not tour in support of the album.
MTV had been after Alice in Chains to do an Unplugged taping for some time, and they finally agreed, rehearsing first in Seattle and then New York. Combining the long break with the band’s numerous personal obstacles during the actual show was a major risk, and the night could’ve easily gone south. By all accounts, Staley was high but just high enough so that he wasn’t actively in withdrawal and could function in public. Songwriter and guitarist Jerry Cantrell had eaten a bad hot dog and was barely staving off the effects of food poisoning (if you’re watching the show, you can spot a trash can next to him). Mike Inez was trolling the newly shorn members of Metallica, who were sitting right up front, with a message scrawled on the front of his bass: “FRIENDS DON’T LET FRIENDS GET FRIENDS HAIRCUTS…”. Studio execs would be forgiven for being more than a little concerned.
Starting with the first song, though, Alice in Chains don’t merely squeak out a show. They blow everyone’s expectations out of the water. Opening with “Nutshell”, from the 1994 EP Jar of Flies, Cantrell manages to strum the first chords (and all further chords) without throwing up. Inez joins in with impeccable electro-acoustic basswork. Sean Kinney’s drums lock in right before Staley begins to sing as if no time has passed and they’ve been doing exactly this for the past three years. The lyrics are raw, dark, and honest, trademark Alice in Chains: “We chase misprinted lines / We face the path of time / And yet I fight, yet I fight / This battle all alone / No one to cry to / And no place to call home.” It’s both a bummer and a relief to hear Staley, their writer, deliver them. It couldn’t be clearer that they mirror his life at that moment, but frankly, it’s good to hear him at all.
The album was initially deemed middling by critics, which is baffling because it’s nearly flawless. Everything that makes Alice in Chains stand out is on full display. The intimate venue shines a light on the reunited group’s dynamic, camaraderie, and sense of humor. The stripped-down format allows the songwriting and musicianship to take center stage, as it did on their largely acoustic EPs Sap, from 1992, and Jar of Flies. Unplugged is a natural fit. Staley and the band—Cantrell, Inez, and Kinney, plus Scott Olson, the rhythm guitarist for the evening—deliver one stellar song after another. The audience rewards them with cheers, whistles, and applause. Staley cracks jokes. If you didn’t know any better, you would think nothing was wrong.
Three of the Big Four grunge bands appeared on Unplugged (only Soundgarden opted out), and each of their performances is among the series’ best: Pearl Jam recorded theirs in March of 1992, and Nirvana’s aired in December of 1993. Pound for pound, Alice in Chains’ session might come out on top. Nirvana’s entry is widely and correctly acclaimed, but they stayed true to their mostly-anti-mainstream-media stance, and nearly half of their set is covers and B-sides. Alice in Chains’ material was all their own (save for Starr and Kinney playing “Enter Sandman” in jest at one point), and they included huge hits as well as fan favorites.
Four songs from Dirt made the cut: “Down in a Hole”, “Angry Chair”, “Rooster”, and “Would?” The audience finally got to hear some Alice in Chains material in “Sludge Factory”, “Heaven Beside You”, “Frogs”, and “Over Now”. The band even debuted a new song, “Killer Is Me”. For many fans, the live, unplugged versions of these songs are the definitive ones. “No Excuses” doesn’t get much better than it does here—Kinney’s drumming is a highlight, and Staley’s vocals are more powerful than they had any right to be. “Nutshell”, the Unplugged opener which was never actually released as a single, has become one of the band’s most highly regarded songs.
Unplugged would mark one of the final times Alice in Chains would perform with Staley (the last time was in July of 1996, before the album came out, as the supporting act on the KISS reunion tour). It’s a difficult listen knowing his fate, which is sad in a fairly overwhelming way. In October of 1996, his fiancée, Demri Parrott, died of a drug overdose. Staley’s friends mark this as the moment he officially checked out, plummeting further into addiction and isolation. Every so often, he’d call into radio shows to support friends, but he was essentially a recluse. Six years after Alice in Chains’ Unplugged performance, in April of 2002, Staley’s body was found on his couch two weeks after his death at age 34, officially attributed to a drug overdose.
In a February 1996 Rolling Stone feature, Cantrell says, “Our music’s kind of about taking something ugly and making it beautiful.” There is no better way than this to describe their Unplugged performance. It’s a perfect dichotomy, unsettling in a way, pairing relentlessly depressing material and serious health issues with a career-high point for the band. To contextualize the shoulder shrug it got from critics, it feels important to reiterate that by the time MTV successfully wooed Alice in Chains for Unplugged, it was April of 1996. Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years. Pearl Jam was about to release No Code, their least radio-friendly album to date. Soundgarden would break up a year later. Grunge was dead.
It’s remarkable that Alice in Chains, perpetually mired in drama, managed to reunite at all, let alone produce what they did here: a virtuoso performance, an essential grunge album, and one of the finest installments of MTV Unplugged. Cantrell has said that he knew the end was near, but as he sings on “Got Me Wrong”, in a wildly rare moment of lyrical optimism, “Something’s gotta turn out right.” For Alice in Chains, it was Unplugged: some of the greatest musicians and songwriters to come out of Seattle playing their best material for a crowd who loves them. What a way to end an era.