Ever since MTV announced the return of its popular series, MTV Unplugged, we’ve been reminiscing about some of the great performances from years past. Performances by Nirvana and Tony Bennett were so popular they were eventually released as full albums, while other performances are best remembered for the great storytelling of the artists. While we wait for the next episode, take a trip down memory lane.
If you were just a tot in the 1990s, it’s probably hard to understand the intensity of Oasis. The band blew up quickly with semi-justifiable comparisons to The Beatles, until sibling rivalry brought the whole thing crashing down. During the band’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? tour they taped an Unplugged special at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It was then that Liam pulled his throat – or something – and couldn’t show up. Noel went it alone and it wound up a terrific performance, even taking over as lead singer for a night. Ironically, the event probably hastened the band’s eventual breakup, as both brothers decided they could make better music alone.
Lauryn Hill (2001)
Lauryn Hill’s turn on Unplugged was billed as a comeback of sorts: it had been three years since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill shook up music. Everyone thought this would be like a second debut, on the way to releasing more music. When a shaky and vulnerable Hill took the stage playing guitar, it shouldn’t have been that big of a deal that her songs were rough and unfinished. No one would have suspected this would be the last we would hear from Hill. That makes the whole performance much more poignant. Of course the desperate record company couldn’t resist putting the performance out as a double album, which probably contributed to her reluctance to ever release a second solo album.
Alicia Keys (2005)
After so many great performances in the 1990s, the newness of the format waned in the first decade of the Aughts. One performance stands out, however, and that is Alicia Keys’ show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With two albums under her belt and a sterling reputation, Keys didn’t need help, but she brought a bunch of stars with her anyway, including Adam Levin, Mos Def and Damian Marley.
Hole is one of the most controversial bands of the 1990’s. You either recognized the greatness of Courtney Love or you believe she killed Kurt Cobain and he wrote all her songs. There was no in between. Debates about the origins of the songs aside, you can’t legitimately debate Hole’s live performance on Unplugged. It took place not even a year after Cobain’s suicide. The appearance was promoting the album Live Through This. Unplugged was already heralded as one of Cobain’s greatest moments, and comparisons were inevitable. Love more than lived up to that unfair comparison, performing her own hits as well as songs like Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” and Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” (which would be released posthumously by Nirvana a decade later).
Jay-Z’s Unplugged special was incredible in part because he appeared with The Roots as his backing band. This was the era of The Blueprint, and the Roots’ adrenaline gave the material even more shine. Special appearances by Mary J. Blige and Pharrell made it a legendary night. It was also an example of how even rap can be modified and amplified by stellar arrangements.
Nirvana’s Unplugged performance is probably their most famous, and the one people flash to instantly when they remember Kurt Cobain. The band was in the midst of the In Utero tour, but it was obviously a dark time. Cobain lit the set with enough candles to fill an episode of Goth Talk and he stubbornly avoided singing the band’s biggest hits. All of this added up to a performance that was special. They did covers of several Meat Puppets songs, David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” and The Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” In other words, it was pure Cobain, zigging when you expected him to zag. Cobain sang the most showstopping song, “Come As You Are” through barely concealed rage. Of course his interpretation of the line “no, I don’t have a gun” is now heartstopping. Less than a year later, Cobain would be dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and the Unplugged performance would serve as the band’s epitaph.