The MTV Unplugged TV show debuted about a year before Tesla’s Five Man Acoustical Jam album, so it’s technically unfair to give Tesla credit for kicking off the 1990s unplugged phenomenon, but Tesla’s chart-topping live acoustic album demonstrated the potential of the unplugged format, if a band was willing to reconsider its catalog in a thoughtful way. Acoustical Jam is great because Tesla chose appropriate songs (their own, but a solid selection of covers), reworking them in smart ways. And 30 years later, Tesla is going back to the live, mostly unplugged well, with Five Man London Jam, a reboot of Five Man Acoustical Jam that proves the band is somehow immune to the ravages of time.
Your humble correspondent is uniquely qualified to write this review, having listened to Five Man Acoustical Jam on tape, CD, and MP3 across just about all of the 30 years it’s been out. So the first thing that jumped out at me was how little singer Jeff Keith’s voice has changed in three decades. He sounds the same now, at 61, as he did at 31. His voice is certainly built for metal, able achieve a Brian Johnson kind of screech, without letting it get too shrill. But in an acoustic setting, both then and now, he lays back, giving the songs a surprisingly natural bluesy air.
Five Man London Jam was recorded in one night at Abbey Road Studios, appropriate for a hard rock band that wears its Beatles influences on its sleeves (both London and Acoustical Jam feature covers of “We Can Work It Out”; London Jam also has a truncated version of “All You Need is Love” and Acoustical Jam featured a snippet of Paul McCartney’s solo “Maybe I’m Amazed”).
London Jam kicks off with “Comin’ Atcha Live,” a Tesla original that segues into the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” just like Acoustical Jam. It’s a reassuring way to start the album and gently recast the concept. One nice thing about Acoustical Jam was the covers. They chose some fun, unexpected songs, like “Truckin’,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi” and the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper,” even keeping in a mistake from the performance. London Jam doesn’t feature any new covers (“Signs,” a huge single for the band, of course, made the cut). Instead, they delve into their catalog since Acoustical Jam, with an emphasis on Shock, their 2019 studio album. It makes sense, since Acoustical Jam leaned heavily on The Great Radio Controversy, the album they were touring at the time, but it makes London Jam feel a little too removed from the original work (although to be fair, London Jam features two Radio Controversy tracks).
And that’s the challenge of an album like London Jam. On some level, fans want the same album they loved, without major changes. And artists need to evolve. So you have to appreciate the bravery shown by Tesla in taking on an iconic album and updating it to reflect where they are now as a band. That integrity is ultimately what makes London Jam work. Tesla is sticking to a format for which it is known, but they’re not trying to recreate their hit album. They’re truly influenced by Acoustical Jam, but not remaking it.