Seven Great Episodes of MTV Unplugged
Twenty four years ago today, the popular music channel MTV (yes, it was once a popular music channel) debuted a series entitled Unplugged where artists would perform in a stripped down environment to a select group of fans. Hundreds of performances and three Primetime Emmys later, this program remains one of the most storied in MTV's history.
On November 26, 1989, Squeeze, Syd Straw and Elliot Easton performed as a part of the first MTV Unplugged, and since then the likes of McCartney, Sting, The Allman Brothers, Clapton and more graced the respective Unplugged stage. In 1994, the series almost hosted an improbable Led Zeppelin reunion, with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant sharing the stage. MTV Unplugged became legendary, and a must-play for any musician looking to put themselves in a different environment. Regardless of what the network has morphed into since, we can still look back fondly on some of these legendary performances.
Macca really put Unplugged on the map with this 1991 performance. Having just wrapped up a massive world tour, the Beatles legend stripped down his songs for a newly launched television program. Flanked by his wife Linda on piano, Blair Cunningham on drums, Paul Wickens on various instruments and Robbie McIntosh and Hamish Stuart on guitars, McCartney broke out several unique cuts from his back catalog as well as some surprise covers.
This set embodied what it meant to perform on Unplugged, with the intimate setting giving life to rarely played tunes. McCartney ran through a couple of rare tracks from his 1970 debut album including "Junk," "That Would Be Something" and "Every Night." Surprise covers of "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Good Rockin' Tonight" also impressed the already stunned crowd.
This performance marked the first official Unplugged release, as McCartney put out his acoustic set as Unplugged (The Official Bootleg).
If McCartney put Unplugged on the map in '91, then Nirvana took it to the another level in '93. Heralded as the best episode of the series, the grunge kings took to the stage for one of their last public performances. Rarely performing acoustically, Nirvana thrived in this environment. Cobain's voice was at the forefront and gave the songs so many loved a far more haunting feel. The band also had fun with the opportunity to strip down their sound and play in a different setting--inviting members of The Meat Puppets for three songs as well as covers of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and the traditional "Where Did You Sleep Last Night."
Standout versions from this performance are still played on repeat, particularly "About A Girl," "Come As You Are" and the incredibly emotional "All Apologies."
Little did Nirvana fans know that six months later their world would change forever, further adding weight to this already heavy performance. MTV Unplugged in New York would serve as the first posthumous release following Kurt Cobain's death.
Alternative rockers 10,000 Maniacs delivered one of the more unique and genuine performances in 1993 when the group performed with lead vocalist Natalie Merchant for one of the last times. The release, which came in October of '93, would be Merchant's last as a member of 10,000 Maniacs.
Among highlights in the performance include a standout cover of "Because the Night," which still ranks as the band's most played song on Spotify, as well as a special guest appearance from David Byrne. The Talking Heads frontman joined The Maniacs for Iris DeMent's "Let the Mystery Be" and proved to be one of the biggest moments in the short history of Unplugged.
10,000 Maniacs also performed covers of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" along with a myriad of their better known tunes such as "These Are Days," "Candy Everybody Wants" and "Like the Weather." Another unique aspect was the backing band, which was expanded to fourteen musicians as opposed to the normal five piece, further diversifying the alternative sound.
The Roots and Jay-Z collaborated for one of the best Unplugged episodes in its history. While the series aimed to have one hip hop episode per season, none hit quite like Jay-Z's performance in 2001 as a part of Unplugged 2.0. Produced by Roots drummer Questlove, the arrangements of tracks from Jay-Z's most soulful album The Blueprint truly standout, as background vocalists and acoustic guitars fleshed out the traditional hip hop sound.
If the special collaboration wasn't already enough, Mary J. Blige joined the band to add vocals to "Can't Knock the Hustle/Family Affair" and Pharrell shared the stage for the hit "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." For someone who sold out arenas and stadiums all around the world, to see a performer of the magnitude of Jay-Z in a stripped down environment will go down as one of the best performances in the legendary rapper's career. It appeared as if the people agreed, as the official release sold over 600,000 copies, making it one of the best selling Unplugged releases ever.
The story behind Neil Young's 1993 performance might be more intriguing than the actual recorded version, as Young re-recorded his MTV Unplugged after the guitarist was unhappy with his band's performance. Backed my Nils Lofgren, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Tim Drummond, Oscar Butterworth, Astrid Young, Nicolette Larson and Larry Cragg, Young delivered a stunning performance, highlighted by the previously unreleased "Stringman."
Along with Young's hits "Like a Hurricane," "Needle and the Damage Done" and "Harvest Moon," performances of note include the beautiful "Long May You Run" and "Mr. Soul." What is great about this performance is the arrangements of Young's songs. The guitarist really showed off his skills as a composer, making this a must-hear for any Neil Young fan or someone who just loves damn good songwriting.
Leave it to The Boss to turn MTV Unplugged into MTV Plugged. Disregarding the traditional acoustic setup, Springsteen and his band plugged in and made it loud during his set in 1992. For those who love Bruce's guitar chops, this is the album for you as the frontman dominates most of the guitar duty with a limited backing band. Opening with the previously unreleased "Red-Headed Woman," The Boss redefined what it meant to perform on this platform, tweaking classic arrangements to some of his best songs. "Atlantic City," felt more somber than normal and "Thunder Road" got loud, shattering the mold for an Unplugged series.
Although this album didn't receive the critical acclaim that the others mentioned in this list did, it is still another example of an artist embracing this tough environment and delivering a performance worthy of praise.
Before Pearl Jam hit the Unplugged studio in 1992, they were still the grunge rockers riding high from their debut release Ten. Not yet renowned for their songwriting ability, the band stripped down their boisterous rock show to give fans a look into the guts of their music. Armed with two acoustic guitars, bass and drums, the band moved through cuts from Ten as well as a couple yet-to-be released tunes from their forthcoming sophomore effort, Vs.
Decked out in a backwards baseball cap, it wasn't long before Eddie Vedder let that patented long hair flow as he growled through "Oceans," "State of Love and Trust," "Alive" and more. The band, made up of then-drummer Dave Abbruzzese along with McCready, Gossard and Ament (also wearing a funny hat), showed off their prowess as a unit, not shying away from any jam potential fans grew accustomed to in their normal live show. While it was nice to see traditional harder rock tunes stripped down, no performance in this set matched the rendition of "Black." For those who hold the song in high regard, this performance is pointed to as one of the best in the song's lengthy history.
While the group remained seated for most of the show, it didn't take long for Pearl Jam to revert to their old ways, with Eddie Vedder climbing on his stool during "Porch" as well as the famous pro-choice message displayed by the frontman. All in all, this show is one of Pearl Jam's landmark performances early in their career, launching them into another stratosphere prior to the release of their sophomore record.