Any band worth their salt shouldn’t always rely on all the gimmicks and gizmos that modern technology gives them to hide behind. I’m not saying that bands should never embrace all the technological gifts that progress puts at their fingertips, but the art of a good band is that they can put on a show without them. As someone more intelligent than I once said, a good song should still sound like a good song on a battered, old, unplugged acoustic guitar.
Like most Unplugged Sessions this recording is only partially unplugged; perhaps stripped back would be a better term for what is going on here, but Soul Asylum in this format sounds excellent. Ironically, they have added more players and instruments into this performance and skillfully woven that into a more understated and layered sound. Proof of the pudding, as they say. But then, Soul Asylum was always a band that straddled the acoustic and electric worlds with ease, so it is probably a format that comes easily to them. Well, if this recording is anything to go on, it does. It’s great.
In April, on Record Store Day 2023, Soul Asylum: The Complete Unplugged – NYC ‘93 was released as a vinyl exclusive. Now, to mark the 30-year anniversary of Soul Asylum’s MTV Unplugged appearance, Soul Asylum: The Complete Unplugged – NYC ‘93 will be available on all major digital streaming platforms this Friday, November 10.
It is worth noting that Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum are still going strong, so any reference to the past tense refers only that this is an older recording, not that the band themselves are no longer a going concern. They very much are and albums such as this are the perfect reminder why they have had such a long and illustrious career.
Recorded the year following Grave Dancers Union, their sixth album, which established the band as a rock contender, this session obviously has several of their best-loved and popular songs. They open with Runaway Train as it is perhaps their best-known song, and here, it is not a million miles away from the original’s balladic delivery. Black Gold balances between deft acoustica and incendiary rock and roll, and Somebody To Shove is rendered into a neo-classical piece thanks to the string section handling the iconic intro riff, giving it a wonderfully fresh texture which still endures even after all this time. Without a Trace, from whose lyrics their iconic album title comes, also features, here in the form of a confident, folk-pop anthem. Brilliant.
Grave Dancers Union, which forms the backbone of this recording, was a fantastic album. Soul Asylum was a great band. And this Unplugged format exposes the heart of the songs for all to see. It proves they didn’t hide behind their gear or manipulated sounds, leaving them able to deliver fantastic and more restrained versions of their songs when called for. It reminds us that they wrote great songs. And it neatly shows us that with a lot of the velocity and volume taken away, with delicate strings and understated acoustica at the core of the performance, they could still deliver the goods. They could balance poise and power, melody and muscle, delicacy and drive, and do so brilliantly.