30 years ago I was 25 and bicycled everywhere. Being young and fit, I cruised around, flew around and revelled in where I was and what I was doing. It was a time that I look back on with fond memories. Fast forward 30 years and I’m on the bike again.
More about that later…
It’s also been 30 years since Tesla released their “Five Man Acoustical Jam” album. This was in the very early days of MTV Unplugged, when artists gave their music a whole other sound. Tesla’s offering was one of the first in this trend. It was critically acclaimed and has been a firm favourite with fans.
So, the 13 tracks and one hour and 6 minutes of “Five Man London Jam” had much to live up to…
“Cumin’ At Ya Live/ Truckin’” came at me with a count-in, which signalled that this was indeed a recording of a live performance. The track swaggered immediately, with a fat blues sound and impressive guitar work. This set the tone for every track – solid blues guitar work, with occasional embellishments through guitar solos, enriched by clever bass and percussion. Each element was as important as the next, with them coming together to produce a rich sound. You can take this as a given for all of the tracks – this musicianship was the hallmark of every track. That these folks have a long history was immediately evident, as they played together with passion and skill. It had me tapping my foot immediately. Jeff Keith’s vocals had a tough rasp about them that had me hooked, taking notice of his technique and the lyrics, which were easily accessible. The segway into “Truckin’”, a cover of a Grateful Dead track, was seamless and logical. Tesla are masters of picking the right track to cover, performing it with honour, but adding their own flair to it.
“Tied to the Tracks” opened with slide guitar and Keith’s voice went up a few notches on the Raspometer. The guitar riffs had a subtle suspense building quality, giving the track a great deal of tension and emotion.
“We Can Work It Out” was a cover of the track by The Beatles and it was performed respectfully. Using two vocalists made it a nice parallel to the original and the percussion had a different arrangement, with the tambourine much more obvious. I am not smart enough to know why, but I am sure there’s some sort of musical nod involved.
“Signs” kicked off without warning, which departed from the repartee between tracks that had come before. There was a terrific acoustic guitar solo that added to the variety of this album.
“What You Give” gave an exquisite interplay of guitars as it’s opening. It was intricate and beautiful. This track had a shift in tempo, with limited percussion. It’s stripped back nature was attention grabbing, as were its lyrics, including, “It’s not what you got, it’s what you give. It ain’t the life you choose, it’s the life you live.” Keith’s vocals were intensely emotional. This was a cleverly written track that carried many life lessons.
“California Summer Song” was immediately bright in nature. It took me back to a simpler time in a favourite place, with my mind reminiscing freely. This track was a great example of the artful nature of music.
“Forever Loving You” slowed things right down, with a terrific bass line used underneath. It was warm in nature and reflective in approach. I wrote down one word at the end of my notes about this track – “beautiful”.
“Miles Away” was introduced by Keith as about a friend that they lost. It started in an understated manner, before transforming into a (comparatively) large wall of sound. It then fell away into an emotional landscape of questioning of self in belief and deed. It was challenging in both subject matter and delivery, sharing the aftermath of losing someone dear.
“Paradise” had me flipping between it being about love or loss, as it spoke of being away too long. Piano was introduced and it added a new texture to the sound. An superb tag-team between piano and guitar featured later and by the end I was more certain it was about love.
“Call It What You Want” had me calling it “intriguing” as the lyrics presented opposite ends of spectrums together, like Communism and freedom, showing the impact of labels and different standpoints. It was clever writing that had me listening to hear what was coming next.
“Stir It Up” was what I was expected, a track about challenging who you are and what you’re doing, then mixing it up to bring about improvement and opportunity. It gave the message that it’s ok to be you, but that you can also rise up and give yourself a hand. It was done in the hallmark manner of the complete sound of artists who understand each other.
“Into The Now” had a much more complex sound, whether this be from a more complicated time signature or the use of a more intricate percussive arrangement. It was about moving on from the past and it featured a percussion solo, further adding to the different nature of this track.
“Love Song” opened with the two guitars feeding off each other. There were some really lovely sounds and sections that had me sitting up and taking notice. The track then added effects and Tesla flexed their metal musical muscles. I thought that this was going to be a great way to end the album, before Tesla launched into truncated covers of “All We Need Is Love” and “She Loves You” as a lark, with them laughing as they did so. This was an even better way to end, appropriate to their influences and location.
This album was pleasant in the best possible way. This doesn’t mean it was boring, it was just good, solid, authentic music. It was easy to predict, but there was the right mix of what I was expecting, with the odd twist and turn to make it engaging. It felt like a gig in an intimate setting, or a the soundtrack to a rock and roll movie.
I occasionally associate “unplugged” with being “raw”. This album isn’t raw, it’s honest. I often caught myself captured by the lyrics, wanting to understand them and keen to hear what was happening next. There was repartee with the select few folks who were present, the quick tuning of instruments and other cues to reinforce the live nature of this recording, which was completed in one evening.
There was a rock solid base of good music, expertly performed in an authentic way, with subtle shifts in sound and pacing between the tracks to make it easy to stay connected to. The sound was right, with the right musical element surfacing at the right time to give each track character.
The subject matter was that if our own lives – life, love, loss, struggle, overcoming adversity and hope.
Jeff Keith’s vocals retained their metal muscle and signature rasp, giving these tracks a robust and bluesy colour. When combined with the intricately woven guitars and percussion, with a sprinkling of piano, the result was that of Americana, Southern rock and emotive blues.
Back to me on the bike. I realise that I can never recapture that time 30 years ago. What I can do is use what I have learnt since then and utilise my current skills, passions and opportunities to create a new set of moments. (Some ripper new technology go astray either!)
This is exactly what Tesla has done – not trying to go back to that halcyon album and time , but capturing the spirit of its intent and augmenting it with the best of what has transpired since.
Did this album live up to its predecessor? Absolutely. It feels as if this album has been influenced by “Acoustic Jam”, but this is not a remake, rather, an extension.