By Chad Baalman
Twenty one years after a performance at a Philadelphia theatre that resulted in an unexpected unplugged success, Tesla is on the road with a dual purpose.
Not only is Tesla celebrating that night at The Trocadero which resulted in the Five Man Acoustical Jam live album, the 25-year rock veterans are touring in support of their most recent studio album, another unplugged effort called Twisted Wires and the Acoustic Sessions.
Wednesday saw the Sacramento band hop off Interstate 55/70 at the neon lights of the East Side, more specifically Pop's Nightclub & Concert Venue, where in workmanlike fashion it delivered a taut 17-song, 105-minute acoustic set.
As it has been over the past two-plus decades, it was all about the music and less about the image for Tesla at the Sauget, Ill. venue, only this time they pulled out the bar stools, grabbed the hollow-bodied guitars, turned down the noise and gave fans something from every disc in its catalog.
Tesla's catalog is chock full of material that is perfect for the acoustic setting such as this tour. In fact, songs that would seemingly be slam dunks for the show, like "Gettin' Better" and "Little Suzi" from their début album Mechanical Resonance and the band's ode to late Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark called "Song and Emotion" from Psychotic Supper, didn't make onto the set list Wednesday.
Songs such as "Cumin' Atcha Live," "Into The Now" and "Hang Tough" -- a trio of hard-driving songs when cast in their electric version, though a little cumbersome in the acoustic format -- started off the show as lead singer Jeff Keith, guitarists Frank Hannon and Dave Rude, bassist Brian Wheat and drummer Troy Luccketta tried to get the crowd going
Next came a string of ballads, including "The First Time," "I Wanna Live" and "A Lot To Lose." The latter, which was originally released on 1994's "Bust A Nut" album, was re-recorded for Twisted Wires and the Acoustic Sessions. That series drew more reaction from the crowd, as did an excellent cover of Led Zeppelin's "Thank You."
Tesla went back to Twisted Wires for a pair of new songs with "2nd Street" and "Better Off Without You" and in the process made the acoustic moniker a slight misnomer, with Hannon reverting to an electric guitar for the solos in each song and exclusively for the Climax Blues Band cover "I Love You." Regardless, the songs came across beautifully and Keith's voice -- now 53 years old -- was still in top form.
While the music was solid, those in attendance (a healthy crowd was on hand, but the venue wasn't jam-packed by any means) were seemingly waiting for big a finish. Keith, Hannon and Rude performed the band's 1986 début hit "Modern Day Cowboy," sans the bottom end and the result was a song that wandered aimlessly.
Give Keith and Wheat props for playing to the locals though. Keith wore a replica St. Louis Cardinals/Albert Pujols jersey while Wheat donned a Blues sweater, circa early 1980s. In fact, Keith showed off his knowledge of Blues-Blackhawks playoff lore by mentioning the 1993 playoff series in which the home team swept their rivals from Chicago. "You remember when they were chatting Bel-four, Bel-four and there were brooms all over the place don't you?" Keith said.
Fan's at Pop's weren't ready to boo or sweep Tesla off the stage. Tesla's final five songs made up for any sagging moments earlier in the show. The intensity began to build throughout "Paradise" with Wheat trading in his bass guitar for a seat behind the keyboards and continued with "Heaven's Trail (No Way Out)." The crowd came out of its shell and sang along to "Love Song," and Hannon nailed the solo (again, electric) note for note.
The band left the stage briefly and returned for a two-song encore that fans were dying to hear. "What You Give," which Hannon dedicated to the Armed Forces, was next and as expected, was a hit with the crowd.
Keith and Co. closed the set with "Signs," a cover of a 1971 song from Five Man Electrical Band that has become a Tesla staple. "Signs" and the penultimate song gave part of the spotlight to Rude, who joined the band in 2006 when he replaced Tommy Skeoch and as a result, inherited the solo duties on those songs from his predecessor.
It was a fitting way for Tesla to end the evening -- with a song that made it an acoustic hit in the first place back in 1990. While Tesla doesn't move the discs or fill the arenas like it once did, concerts like the one at Pop's gave fans a chance to experience the breadth of Tesla's work and craftsmanship in an intimate setting.
The show featured two supporting acts - Six Weeks Sober and Built By Stereo. Like Tesla, both hail from California (the former from Oakland and the latter from the greater Sacramento area, specifically Vacaville).
Both bands kept with the acoustic theme. Six Weeks Sober, the opener and a newcomer to the tour, jammed seven songs into its 30-minute set and featured a more "in your face" grunge vibe (think Papa Roach) than Built By Stereo, which looked to be right at home with the guitars unplugged and played slightly longer. Built By Stereo had a more radio-friendly sound throughout its 10-song performance, though it kicked up the tempo nicely with a cover of Cheap Trick's "He's A Whore."
Tesla set list Cumin' Atcha Live/Truckin' (Grateful Dead cover - partial)
Into The Now
The First Time
Thank You (Led Zeppelin cover)
I Wanna Live
A Lot To Lose
Better Off Without You
Just In Case
I Love You (Climax Blues Band cover)
Modern Day Cowboy
Heaven's Trail (No Way Out)
What You Give
Signs (Five Man Electrical Band cover)