Five Man Acoustical Jam
Geffen Records, 1990
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/01/2001
Since the release of the new live Tesla album, I've been kind of reminiscing about Jeff Keith and company, and how excited I first was when I discovered them thanks to MTV. (You know, back in the days when they actually played music videos from hard rock bands... back when MTV didn't suck.) So into the Pierce Memorial Archives I went, and came out with Five Man Acoustical Jam, their 1990 release which predated any MTV Unplugged special.
Simply put, this disc (whose name is a pun on Five Man Electrical Band, a group who had one hit in the '70s... but more on that later) took Keith and crew and dared to put them in a setting unfamiliar to many hard rock acts: the world of acoustic rock. Sure, plenty of bands had experimented with acoustical music at some point or another; in the early days of their career, the Grateful Dead used to do one acoustic set mixed with their electrical work. (Maybe this is why Tesla segues into "Truckin'" during "Cumin' Atcha Live".) But no band had really tried to capitalize on their success by doing a series of acoustic dates, then turning them into a live album.
Could Tesla - who had all of two albums under their belts at this point - pull such a stunt off? The answer is a surprising "yes". Surprising not in the fact that they did it, but that they did so with a surprising array of covers. As Keith points out on stage, "We're just fuckin' around tonight," but they did it with a style that keeps the audience interested.
I first reviewed Five Man Acoustical Jam back when it came out for my college's newspaper, and my biggest complaint then is my biggest complaint today. This is supposed to be an acoustic performance... meaning the introduction of an electric guitar solo during "Love Song" is inappropriate. Simply put, it ruins the mood of the show - even if this song marked the break between the show proper and the encore. It also drowns out the work of the rest of the band, save for Keith's vocals and Troy Lucketta's drum work. Sorry, gang, but I'm a bit of a purist in this regard.
And it would be nice to say that all the originals from Tesla work in the acoustic format. They don't, but it's not from any lack of trying. "Modern Day Cowboy" tries to be as spectacular acoustically as it was on Mechanical Resonance, but this is a song which begs for the power of electric guitars, especially during the solos. Then again, other tracks like "Before My Eyes," "Heaven's Trail (No Way Out)" and "Paradise" sometimes feel like they work even better in the all-acoustic format.
Five Man Acoustical Jam's highlight is "Signs," a cover originally done by Five Man Electrical Band. (See? I told you we'd get back to them. If you must own the original version, pick up the album Good-Byes And Butterflies.) If you expect to hear the version that's become a rock radio standard, you might be a little surprised. You see, the radio version (which was made available on the cassette single) features the words "blockin' out the scenery", while the album version has people "fuckin' up the scenery". Just be warned in case the kiddies come around on this track.
As for the other covers, Tesla holds their own well on tracks from the Beatles ("We Can Work It Out" - which Paul McCartney would perform on his own acoustic live album), The Rolling Stones ("Mother's Little Helper") and even Credence Clearwater Revival ("Lodi"). Why Tesla would have resorted to so many covers in this show might be confusing - but it does help to create an almost informal feel to the album, as if the band (along with a couple thousand of your closest friends) were in your living room.
Five Man Acoustical Jam is interesting today because it features Tesla at the height of their popularity, a point I question whether they ever were able to hit again. If anything, the album shows that rockers knew how to turn down the volume and arrange their music for the acoustic guitar setting - and suggests that Tesla helped to pioneer the "unplugged" craze which would sweep music a few years later.