April 19, 2002.
I was in the last semester of my 6th grade year. I was sitting in the back of the family’s maroon Buick and the radio was on. My mom had ran into the check cashing place to get her paycheck cashed, and the DJ came on to announce that Layne Staley, lead vocalist for Alice in Chains, had been found dead in his Seattle apartment. “Nutshell” from Jar of Flies began to play.
It was later determined that Layne actually passed on April 5, 2002; making yesterday 20 years since we’ve lost him. I know, it’s also the anniversary of Nirvana vocalist Kurt Cobain’s passing, but this article is about Layne. It was my full intention to post this article yesterday, but it is also insanely hard trying to narrow down 5 performances…
Personally, while I am a big Nirvana fan, I think that when it comes to vocal delivery, you have to give the crown to Layne. Not to get into things like music theory, but his vocal lines were delivered so uniquely and in such a way that hadn’t really been done before, that it set him apart from the other vocalists who were big in his genre at the time. I wanted to take today to look at some of those performances that, if someone hadn’t really listened to Alice in Chains, Mad Season, Layne in general, I’d recommend. I want to focus on the positive impact on music that Layne left, rather than focusing on the tragedy of his passing.
5. Alice in Chains – Rain When I Die – Dirt 1992
As far as albums go, Dirt, is fantastic from start to finish. However, you really get a feel for Layne’s vocal abilities on “Rain When I Die”, the third track on the album.
The vocal layering is fantastic. The way that Layne’s voice crescendos throughout the song is fantastic. I really think this is not only one of the best songs to showcase what the guy could do, but it is also one of the top tracks off of Dirt, in my opinion.
4. Mad Season – Long Gone Day – The Moore Theatre Seattle, WA 1995
I don’t think I can create this list without including this performance. Not only is it one of Layne’s most amazing performances, but also that of the recently departed Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan. It’s a simple performance, but Layne’s delivery during it is strong, and shows versatility in the way his vocal line flows in and out between Lanegan’s deep and sultry vocal.
3. Alice in Chains – Would? – Singles Performance (1991/1992?)
Some may argue that “Would?” off of the Singles Soundtrack is their best song. I think it’s a valid point for multiple reasons, but this particular performance for the film itself is such an amazing performance not only by Layne, but the entire band. Not only do you get Layne at one of his strongest vocal points, but you get a taste of the beautiful harmonizing between Layne and guitarist Jerry Cantrell. There are so many tracks performed vocally by both that show how uniquely their voices fit; “No Excuses”, “Down in A Hole”, “Heaven Beside You”, I could go on and on, but this is not the article for it.
2. Alice in Chains – Sludge Factory – MTV Unplugged April 10, 1996
After being out of the public eye following rumors of drug abuse and a break up, Alice in Chains surfaced on MTV’s Unplugged. It was their first performance in two and a half year, and it would be one of their last with Layne.
Even with Layne interrupting the beginning of their first attempt at the performance with a loud “FUCK”, it still sounds amazing.
As you watch the performance, Layne remains pretty still and not fully up against the microphone, yet the sound that comes out of him is incredible. While the entirety Unplugged performance is probably one of, if not the, best performances with Layne on vocal, this particular song sticks out. His performance on it is, in my opinion, better than the album version.
1. Alice in Chains – Love, Hate, Love – The Moore Theatre Seattle, WA 1990
Layne was a young 23 during this performance, and I really think it is the pinnacle of vocals from him. It’s not even one of my favorite Alice in Chains songs, but the power in his voice is insane. You have no idea the breath control you have to possess in order to hit and hold the note at 4:47 and for it to be THAT strong.
At the beginning of the performance, you hear Layne say the song is about pain, and that is completely delivered during this live video. In “Love, Hate, Love”, you get the deepest of growls, and his ease at the top of his loud yells where you can hear him flip from his chest to his head voice without missing a beat or breath.
One of my favorite things about watching this particular performance is that you can see Layne using his entire body as his instrument in the way he stands and contorts; even the placement of his mouth adds to the instrument of his voice. Just when you think it is over, it keeps going, proving that he is one of the most amazing vocalists of the era.
Coming up with only 5 tracks was a hell of a feat. If you’ve never heard Layne Staley or aren’t the biggest Alice in Chains fan, or don’t know where to begin, I think these are some solid ones to start with. His voice left a big impact on music and vocalists in particular, and it’s a loss we still feel.
I got to cover his annual birthday bash that they throw up in Seattle in 2017, and if you’re a fan of Layne, it’s something I highly suggest checking out. It’s truly amazing seeing how much of an impact he still has and also truly amazing seeing some great musicians pay tribute.