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'MTV Unplugged's Best Performances: The Obvious (Nirvana, Eric Clapton) and Less Obvious as Well


November 26, 1989 marked the first airing of MTV's Unplugged series, a showcase that took some of the best bands across many generations and gave viewers a new look. The performers themselves often praised the program due to its live nature and its promotion of differing from the same ol' songs that get repeated so often. Squeeze was the first band featured but many other high acts jumped on the bandwagon over the years. Music Times chose eight classic performances worth revisiting.

Neil Young (February 7, 1993...kind of)

An acoustic set should be easy for the man that wowed audiences over the years with iconic albums such as Harvest. He opted to incorporate as many acoustic instruments as possible, such as the dobro, accordion and pump organ. Unfortunately he was irritated with the performances of those assigned to helm said instruments and the group recorded a second concert to release for the album. Still, classics such as Phil Ochs' "The Needle and The Damage Done" and the previously unreleased "Stringman" made this worth owning. We can only imagine if the Godfather of Grunge had brought Crazy Horse with him following Ragged Glory—after all, many a grunge band dominated the Unplugged series.

Bob Dylan (November 17-18, 1994)

Bob Dylan, the foremost songwriter and folk musician in American history, seems like an obvious choice for MTV Unplugged and his classics such as "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and "Like A Rolling Stone" are obvious songs to play. The performer himself wanted to traditional folk standards but reportedly the staff at MTV advised him to stick to the classics (which seems odd, considering how well another band did while playing mostly covers previous to that). Dylan took his own approach to their advice, adjusting his hits enough to stay fresh, and was rewarded with a no. 23 debut on the Billboard 200, his biggest debut in more than a decade.

R.E.M. (April 10, 1991)

If there's any doubt that R.E.M.'s appearance on MTV Unplugged was great than consider the group is one of few with multiple appearances on the program (coming on again during 2001). The first edition is better, featuring a heavy dose of the band's Out of Time, including the classic track "Losing My Religion," which features guitarist Peter Buck playing the mandolin as well. Neither of these concerts saw a formal release until 2014 when they were packaged into a Record Store Day 4-LP compilation.

Alanis Morissette (September 18, 1999)

Alanis Morissette spent the majority of the '90s following the release of Jagged Little Pill trying to convince haters that she was more than just an angry young woman. Her MTV Unplugged appearance helped her convey the message but that doesn't mean she shied away from perhaps her biggest, and most angst-ridden hit: She played "You Oughta Know" near the end of the set, working in a cello to replace the electric guitar featured in the original...which in turn made the song perhaps more intimidating.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (August, 1994)

Fans finally got a one-off Led Zeppelin concert during 2007 but the hankering for one had been going on for more than 25 years. The closest fan had gotten previously was No Quarter, an album recorded by vocalist Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page in affiliation with MTV Unplugged. The album featured a number of stripped down Zeppelin classics and a few Lebanese-influenced tracks written by the two former bandmates. There was no "Stairway To Heaven" but there was, ironically, a rendition of "Four Sticks," named for the twin pairs of drumsticks held by John Bonham during the original recording.

Alice in Chains (April 10, 1996)

Alice in Chains has unfortunately been regarded as the most meat headed of the grunge movement's members due to its obvious preference for the more heavy-metal side of the spectrum. The dark lyrics and heavy guitars have caused many to overlook the fact that the band featured the best vocal attack of any other Seattle band during that time: Although all acts featured memorable vocalists (Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Mark Lanegan et al), this live set showcased the twin-pronged attack of Layne Staley's sinister drawl and Jerry Cantrell's often overlooked harmonies. It wasn't anything new for them, per se, but it was an eye-opener to many.

Eric Clapton (January 16, 1992)

Eric Clapton was still struggling with the death of his son Conor during 1991, which influenced the writing of the classic "Tears In Heaven" later that year. The version most of us are familiar with is that which he performed during his MTV Unplugged appearance early during 1992, which make the rest of his blues covers seem positively jaunty by comparison. The highlight still has to be "Layla" however, where he takes his furiously-paced epic and tones it down to a near dirge, a transformation among the best in unplugged conversions, on MTV or anywhere.

Nirvana (November 18, 1993)

Could there be any other conclusion to this list? What makes MTV Unplugged in New York better than any other album in the series, and among the best Iive albums of all time for that matter, is the band's (largely Kurt Cobain's) decision to incorporate so many covers. Cobain attacks the new tracks with twice as much intensity as he handles his own work, making the Leadbelly standard "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" common knowledge for alt fans, a play on the Vaselines' single "Jesus Wants Me for A Sunbeam" and a three-song set near the end of the set that drew attention to less popular Seattle standard-bearers The Meat Puppets.

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