One of the great Unplugged albums of all time…isn’t even an “official” Unplugged album. That would be Tesla’s spontaneously released Five Man Acoustical Jam from 1990. Its hit single “Signs” absolutely helped set up the MTV Unplugged revolution.
With no intention of creating a live album, Tesla played a few acoustic gigs on off days and then recorded the Philly show for the archives. However a radio station in Boston started playing an acoustic rendition of “Signs” and plans were put in motion to capitalize. Thus Five Man Acoustical Jam came to be, a highlight of the Tesla catalogue that was almost completely unplanned.
“We’re just fuckin’ around tonight!” says singer Jeff Keith before “Heaven’s Trail”. Well then Tesla should spend more time fucking around. The looseness of the songs was so fresh for 1990. Tesla rolled the hits: “Modern Day Cowboy”, “Gettin’ Better”, “The Way it Is”, and of course “Love Song”, the only one with an electric solo. But because they were “just fuckin’ around”, there are also some very interesting covers: Beatles, Stones, the Dead, CCR and of course the Five Man Electrical Band. Tesla’s version of “We Can Work it Out” is awesome and incredibly fun. Less so with the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” which is an unusually structured song to start with. “Lodi” by CCR was custom made for Tesla. “Signs”, of course what the smartest cover song decision the band ever made.
Five Man Acoustical Jam is a live album held in high esteem, for many good reasons.
1. A great selection of original material (old and brand new) that worked well in the acoustic format.
2. Choice covers.
3. Terrific recording, and 100% live with no fixes or overdubs.
4. Expert musicianship.
Frank Zappa asked “Does humour belong in music?” The answer is “Sometimes”! One of those times is a loose, fun acoustic show. They could get away with playing a joke track like “Tommy’s Down Home”, written and sung by guitarist Tommy Skeoch. “I’d like to cut the balls off a long-haired hippie, and tie them up to a tree,” he sings gleefully.
The one single was the smash hit “Signs”, and it had a non-album B-side. “Little Suzi” (also a cover, but an earlier one) might be from the same gig. Jeff’s voice is shredded on this one, but it’s hella cool.
It’s probably fair to say that Tesla are underrated. They get stuck on tours with bands like Poison, who have nothing to do with the rootsy rock that Tesla has on offer. Tesla are better than that, and Five Man Acoustical Jam is actually a bit of an essential classic to own. The irony is that Tesla’s most definitive live album is the one that was basically a fluke!