Do you remember when in the ’90s many music artists suddenly seemed to realize they could deliver more intimate performances by sitting down on stage with their bands and largely replacing electric with acoustic instruments? Unplugged albums quickly became en vogue. They also helped revive flagging careers of some artists, such as Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Undoubtedly, the television series MTV Unplugged fueled this trend.
To perform music that originally was written for electric instruments in a stripped down fashion required a good degree of craftsmanship. Gone were many of the sound effects behind which artists had been able to “hide.” While as is oftentimes the case with fashionable trends the unplugged wave may have been a bit overdone, the concept has generally appealed to me as a hobby guitarist. Following are five of my favorite unplugged performances.
I also would have loved to include the fantastic version of Hotel California by the Eagles from their great Hell Freezes Over album. But this band is very protective of their music, and even if you’re lucky enough to find a specific song you want on YouTube, oftentimes the clips are taken down, and before you know it, you have a dead link – not fun!
Billy Idol/White Wedding (VH-1 Storyteller, 2002)
Billy Idol may have been a fashion punk who became known for playing commercial music that didn’t have anything to do anything with punk. But in my opinion, he surely knew how to write tunes with catchy melodies that rocked. Undoubtedly, a major role in all of it played his guitarist Steve Stevens, who co-wrote various of Idol’s biggest hits, such as Rebel Yell, Eyes Without A Face and Flesh For Fantasy. Plus, Stevens is a hell of a guitarist, which this clip of White Wedding nice illustrates, one of the best unplugged performances I’ve seen. He continues to perform and tour with Idol to this day.
Eric Clapton/Layla (Unplugged, 1992)
To successfully strip down an iconic rock song like Layla, which in its original features fantastic guitar interplay by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, is a formidable task. Clapton didn’t only do that, but gave the tune an entirely new character on his 1992 Unplugged album. In my opinion, the result is one of the best rock cover versions, similar to Joe Cocker’s rendition of With A Little Help From Friends by The Beatles.
Rod Stewart/Maggie May (Unplugged…And Seated, 1993)
Sometimes one may forget that Rod Stewart in his early days was a top-notch rock artist. I’ve always loved Maggie Mae, which he co-wrote with British guitarist and composer Martin Quittenton. The tune was originally recorded for Stewart’s third solo album Every Picture Tells A Story, released in May 1971. At the time, Stewart was still with The Faces. In fact, all of the band’s members played on the album. Notably, Ronnie Wood was also part of Unplugged…And Seated, Stewart’s excellent unplugged album from 1993, from which this clip is taken.
Nirvana/The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Unplugged In New York, 1993)
Nirvana’s unplugged version of The Man Who Sold The World is one of the most haunting covers of the David Bowie song I know. It was part of the band’s MTV Unplugged In New York album, which was recorded on November 18, 1993 – about four and a half months prior to Curt Cobain’s death. His almost painful singing, along with guitars that sound are out of tune, give this performance a somewhat creepy feel. It shows an artist who at the time was in the brutal throes of drug addiction and depression.
Neil Young/Like A Hurricane (Unplugged, 1993)
Like A Hurricane is one of my favorite rock tunes by Neil Young. Naturally, I was curious how he would handle an unplugged version of a song that in its initial recording is dominated by heavily distorted grunge-like electric guitar. In my opinion, Young’s performance with just an organ and a harmonica takes it to another level. The church-like sound of the organ combined with Young’s signature quavering voice induces chills and literally blows me away. Check it out yourself.
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube