Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances - Rolling Stone
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Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Follow the late frontman from his high-school cover-band days to his grunge-era glory years

Original Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley passed away 15 years ago today, his demise sadly coming as no great surprise to those who knew him or had followed his career. Even at the peak of the influential Seattle hard-rock band’s career, Staley had made no secret of his dalliances with heroin, and he’d completely dropped off the radar following the band’s brief 1998 reunion to cut a pair of songs for their Music Bank box set.

But while it’s impossible to fully separate the man’s art from his addiction, the fact remains that Staley was a massively talented and charismatic singer, one whose intense performances are still capable of raising the hairs on the back of your neck more than two decades after the fact. So rather than dwell on the unfortunate circumstances of his death, let’s enjoy these 10 amazing live highlights from his incredible but all-too-brief career.

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Down in a Hole” (‘MTV Unplugged,’ 1996)

When Alice in Chains taped their appearance on MTV Unplugged in the spring of 1996, it marked the first time since January 1994 that all four members of the band had appeared together on the same stage. While Staley certainly looked fragile, and while his continuing struggles with addiction gave a newer, darker meaning to “Down in the Hole” – originally written by Cantrell about the difficulty of juggling life on the road with long-term relationships – his soulful performance of the song seemed to offer some cause for optimism, as did the entire Unplugged set. “It’s really hard to pick favorites [from the show],” Cantrell told Guitarist magazine later that summer, “but I will say that we’ve never played ‘Down in the Hole’ live, and that track turned out really good.”

Alice in Chains' Layne Staley: 10 Great Performances

Alice in Chains, “Again”/”We Die Young” (‘Letterman,’ 1996)

One month after taping Unplugged, Alice in Chains fired up their amps for a guest appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Staley looks considerably worse for the wear, and his vocals on “Again” – a single from 1995’s Alice in Chains, which the band was performing live for the first time – seem tentative, but the way he rips into the Facelift classic “We Die Young” is absolutely goosebump-raising. It’s almost as if, at least for a moment, he was once again able to tap into the internal fire that powered his vocals in the early days. Sadly, Staley would only make a handful of live appearances after this. 

“Layne had an amazing voice that had such a beautiful, sad, haunting quality about it,” said Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, in an official statement following Staley’s death. “He was different because his heaviness was in that voice. I saw Alice in Chains at one of their final performances, opening for Kiss at Tiger Stadium [in the summer of 1996]. They played outside in the sunshine, and they were awesome. I think that’s a good way to remember someone who has and will be missed.”

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