Turn it down, better still turn it off: Dylan went electric but Alan Hull, Bowie and McGuinn had unplugged moments
Anyone who reads Salut! or Salut! Live will recognise Bill Taylor as a prolific and compelling writer. Example: he is up to nearly 50 slices of lockdown life from Toronto and more than half of these little treasures have been reproduced at Salut! from his Facebook pages.
Bill and I go back decades to our youth in North-eastern England, working on local newspapers and helping to run folk clubs. Here, Bill looks at some of his favourite performers, mostly rock, and recalls special acoustic experiences ...
When I was in my early teens and used to sit in my bedroom and play music too loudly on my Dansette record player (plum and grey with a padded top; state of the art), my dad’s constant threat was:
“Turn that racket down or I’ll come up and pull the bloody plug out.”
His idea needed refining but, had we only realised, he was onto something.
Bob Dylan famously, in 1965, outraged his folkie audiences by adding a full-blast electric backing to his songs. I saw him on tour the following year at Newcastle City Hall and was enthralled when The Hawks – who later morphed into The Band – came out with him for the second half and blew the place apart.
Not everyone felt the same way…
But the trend eventually went the other way with singers realising that if they went on stage solo with an acoustic guitar, it added another dimension to their music and gave them a whole new act. One that didn’t need an arena or concert hall or a fleet of trucks to carry the equipment.
It opened up small venues and gave them the intimate audience contact they always said they craved.
I don’t think I’d even heard of Lindisfarne until Alan Hull, lead singer/songwriter, showed up at the Aclet Hotel folk club in Bishop Auckland and sang a few of his songs without the addition of electricity.
His performance had an electricity all its own. Here he is with what became a kind of Tyneside anthem:
I treasure the memory of seeing Roger McGuinn in a tiny club in Philadelphia doing a one-man unplugged show, including some of the Byrds’ best known material.
He introduced one song as,“something I wrote once for a motorcycle movie”. It was Ballad of Easy Rider. I was in heaven.
But here he is (at a different venue) doing what he himself called perhaps the most unlikely solo acoustic song ever, Eight Miles High.
(I should mention that the opening act for that show was the criminally under-rated Aztec Two-Step – Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman. And shame on me for not listing them on Salut! Live recently among my favourite acoustic duos. A grievous sin of omission. I offer this in redress:
Bruce Springsteen has always been known for his high-energy, marathon take-the-roof-off concerts. But sit “the Boss” down with a guitar and a hard-edged rocker becomes a more soulful ballad:
Another artist that took me completely by surprise when a photographer I was driving through a remote region of northern Ontario played his solo album was Kurt Cobain, front man of the ground-breaking grunge-band Nirvana.
With a couple of extra acoustic guitarists and minimal percussion, Cobain stripped himself bare – so to speak – and it was beautiful. Here’s The Man Who Sold the World
Almost as unlikely as Kurt Cobain is David Bowie. But the Thin White Duke’s self-accompanied rendition of Jacques Brel’s Port of Amsterdam is among my favourite live performances:
The list goes on. And on. From Bryan Adams to Neil Young (both Canadian compatriots of mine…), Brian Wilson to Metallica (seriously).
Let your fingers do the walking. See what you can come up with. It might surprise you.