In the 1990s, MTV’s iconic Unplugged series was the final proving ground for several bands on their way to becoming legendary. While their contemporaries in Nirvana and Pearl Jam had great success with the format, Alice In Chains were a bit reluctant to get on board with the program. As Jerry Cantrell told Kerrang!, “We were thinking: ‘No disrespect, but hasn’t this been done by everyone? We don’t need to do that!’”
Given the singer/songwriter nature of much of the band’s material, Alice In Chains seemed tailor-made for Unplugged. MTV realized this, and the network relentlessly dogged the band with offers until they eventually relented.
Although it had been two-and-a-half years since they last performed together, Cantrell was less concerned about the cobwebs than the quality of the songs themselves. He pontificates, “There’s no safety net, so your songs better be pretty good. Boiling it down reveals the heart of the song, without all the bells and whistles, and if it still hits in that environment then you did good.”
All of the right pieces might have been there, but it would turn out that something entirely different from the usual Alice In Chains chaos almost derailed the performance. Upon landing in New York, where the gig was to be recorded at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music’s Majestic Theater, Cantrell fell ill.
“Oh yeah, I had ‘food poisoning’,” he says mockingly. “But when the lights went green, the cameras started rolling, my body gave me some adrenaline and dopamine I needed to get through it.”
Bolstering the guitarist to get through the set was the presence of personal heroes, Metallica. In the Load-era of 1996, the new short haircuts on the thrash legends was still highly controversial. Alice In Chains bassist Mike Inez might have gone a little far by scrawling “Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Friends Haircuts…” across his bass, but other tributes from the stage such as licks from “Enter Sandman” and “Battery” were less passive-aggressive.
“Having Metallica watching the gig helped,” remembered Cantrell. “Those guys have always been in our inner circle of rock’n’roll brothers, so to have the whole band there meant a lot.”
Jerry might have held on through the set, but it turns out that he was far from recovered. “As soon as it was over, I went back to feeling crappy again,” he said.