Lights are dimmed but everything’s clearly visible. Long, white candles dress the scenery in shaking shadows. The sense of anticipation is so tangible that almost felt physically. Then, on the stage of Brooklyn Academy of Music, here they come; long-haired, tall musicians. Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, Scott Olson, Sean Kinney.
At the end, the vocalist Layne Staley – with pink hair, dark shades and a shy smile. With no welcoming or warning, Alice in Chains starts their legendary concert, Unplugged.
The electricity-free performances
MTV Unplugged is a series of concerts played only with the acoustic instruments. First of those shows happened in 1989, with Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora on the stage. Among the musicians who enriched MTV’s agenda with their presence, were (among many others) Pearl Jam, Nirvana, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Shakira, Bob Dylan… The concert of Alice in Chains, performed on the 10th of April 1996 in New York, was definitely one of the most significant in this series. Not because it was the band’s first gig in the past 3 years, but also due to the fact that MTV Unplugged was the second last show when Layne Staley sang in public.
Alice in Chains Unplugged is a beautiful, musical-theatrical show; the characters know their roles perfectly well; with some moments of natural improvisation, spicing up the songs (loved by the crowd!). The scenery is perfectly synchronized with the atmosphere around; not showing off too much but highlighting what needs to be discovered and experienced. Above all, the performance is a unique music feast, where the sounds are the Big Director – dressing time in the rhythm, deciding on the temperature level in the room and leading the musicians’ every move.
Alice in Chains played in total thirteen tracks, among which eight were typical ‘studio songs’. Some of the tracks weren’t much different from their original recordings, too (for example the primarily strongly acoustic No Excuses – the unplugged version just cut out the electric guitar and sometimes too loud drums). Is it bad? Well, the concert itself is not filled up with newbies or super-rearranged songs. But in the case of Alice, not present on the music stage for more than two years, it appeared to be the smartest strategy to implement.
Songs to remember
Nutshell is a song you just cannot pass without notice. The one of a kind melody, lead mainly by the guitar with not too pushy, yet still restrained rhythm, is a perfect background for the unique lyrics written by Layne himself. Nutshell unplugged is not much different though from the original version (when it comes to the form) but when you listen to it during the MTV concert, it seems to get a whole new meaning. Perhaps one of the reasons for it is that Layne starts it as the first track of the show; completely without any warning, yet smoothly synchronizing with Jerry’s guitar.
With the music background being calmer than usual, you can focus more on the text layer of all the songs; Nutshells is, however, a special case in this rule. The lyrics of Nutshell tell us about sadness, despair and losing hope; all this packaged in a very tranquil yet sometimes poetic language – one of the characteristics of Layne’s favorite esthetics. Even though, paradoxically, Nutshell is the track that’s quite often covered by other bands, it’s impossible to picture the most accurate person to perform it than Alice in Chains’ vocalist himself.
The brotherhood of a vocalist and a guitarist
When describing Nutshell we cannot miss mentioning the long, beautiful guitar solo by Jerry, who, by the way, is considered to be one of the best guitarists in the world. The incredible Staley-Cantrell duo was very often the main character in the MTV Unplugged performance. Jerry’s voice, quite different than Layne’s, can be heard a little bit too often (especially in the last song, Killer is Me, when the vocal part was almost fully taken by the guitarist). This synergic voice relationship takes ownership also in the second played track – Brother. When comparing to a bit too squeaky original, the acoustic versions reaches a totally new level and uncovers its whole new potential.
Above all, you should clap extra loud after listening to the a capella parts, sung by both Layne and Jerry. You won’t hear it though in the original version; the only brief moment when we could hear it happened during the Unplugged concert. Those few seconds of singing only stops the song in the tipping point and empowers its beauty. Check the last, solemnly prolonged verse – wonder how that color taste – and try not to have chills!
A mixture of all rhythms
After the calm, almost melancholic intro, it’s time for the more energetic No Excuses. You should know that Alice in Chains prepared the whole show especially for the specifics of MTV Unplugged performance. Directed by Alex Coletti, the whole concert perfectly balances between drama and tension. The more energetic tracks are mixed with the calm ones so that the audience experiences the proper rhythm of the performance. A little dissonance in the concert was to put two 7-minutes long songs – Frogs and Over Now – both of them quite heavy even without the unplugged background.
Despite this tiny detail, the whole show was designed very carefully and with lots of thought – that’s why the concert is not just a series of songs played by a band, but a master performance of tracks which compose together a smoothly designed piece. Perhaps that’s exactly the reason why Alice’s MTV Unplugged was such a hit.
The boys from Alice took a really good care that we had plenty of the well-known songs, such as Down In A Hole or Rooster. Electric instruments, in both of those compositions, play quite an important role. That’s why it was even more interesting to listen to them in the unplugged version. Luckily, none of them lost any quality with this experiment. However, they turn into a little bit different form; but definitely not a worse one.
It is truly remarkable that – even after such a long pause in performing – Alice in Chains were able to present such a high level of mastery in transforming their own artwork. Down In A Hole and Rooster don’t lose anything from their essence of the composition. Even better – with the absence of electric sound they gain a whole new level of sound. They’re somehow ‘deeper’, more vivid and centralized rather than played on a surface. Big bravo to the initiators of the whole MTV Unplugged series! Thanks to this idea we can reach a totally new meaning and potential of the well-known pieces. No doubt; we could experience just that during the Alice’s concert.
When improvisation is on the agenda
One of the biggest advantages of the live video record is that it includes all the parts between the songs (this, however, was cut off in the audio record). Thanks to those records we can witness all the ‘bloopers’, mistakes and spontaneous behaviors of the musicians. It’s great to see it all, not only for the band’s fans but also for people for whom Alice’s concert was the first contact with the group.
At the same time, all those moments were a very important touch point for the perception of the concert. It had this very special, characteristic atmosphere of a gig played spontaneously in a small bar, in front of a group of friends. A crowded, small stage of Brooklyn Academy and candlelight definitely helped to create this unique climate. Not mentioning an occasional sipping from the glasses filled with wine and beer – totally visible for anybody in the audience. Everybody who was watching a show seemed to feel very familiar and chilled; including the musicians from legendary Metallica, who were sitting in the front row. It was Metallica exactly, who got a witty tribute, as if totally unplanned by Alice’s artist (intro of Battery and Enter Sandman, squeezed smoothly between parts of the concert).
Also, Jerry Cantrell simply can’t help but improvise some country solos, which got Layne in a state of a polite astonishment. It’s hard to get angry at Jerry though because his natural grace of a professional musician makes the crowd join the fun. Even despite all these moments of play, the band won’t let the audience take charge of the performance. They never lose track neither of the rhythm nor the agenda but at the same they make it look like an improvised show.
An element which makes the concert absolutely unique is the presence of a charismatic and legendary vocalist of Alice in Chains – Layne Staley. This heroin addict, extremely sensitive and musically talented artist doesn’t need to do much to put all the attention to him. Skinny, pale, with hair dyed pink and a sweater with long black sleeves; after he takes off his dark sunglasses we can clearly notice his restless, hazy look. Despite his dubious good condition, he performs as well as he can and lets the audience enjoy his incredible vocal.
He behaves a little bit like a helpless, scared animal but as long as the performance goes, the braver Layne gets. As if music gave him a mysterious energy. He even joked at the end of the show, saying that this concert has been the best they gave in the last three years (it’s funny precisely because it was the only gig they gave at that time).
Never to happen again
MTV Unplugged Alice in Chains is definitely one of the most successful ones in this series. The Seattle band’s songs, played with no electricity, gained a whole new level of artistic depth which wasn’t possible to get when using electric instruments. Paradoxically, those tracks got rid of the ‘chains’ of amplifiers. Set free to their raw form of acoustic sound unleashed their potential and presented themselves from a new side.
Everything, starting from the way musicians were displayed on stage, together with the low lightening, mysterious but comfortable atmosphere, and choice of songs was carefully planned and organized with mastery. It’s hard to believe that it was the first time in three years since Alice played together; everything was so smooth and perfect. It just proves, once more, that they’re true artists and professionals. It’s also very sad to realize that MTV Unplugged was the second last performance with Layne as a vocalist. However, it only adds the show, even more, uniqueness and symbolism. With no chains of electricity, familiar yet ceremonial, but above all, perfectly performed. A composition which will never be repeated.