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Aerosmith "Unplugged 1990" CD Review

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I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

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Aerosmith, "Unplugged 1990"

Zip City, 2017 (Unofficial Release)
Recorded live at the Ed Sullivan Theater, New York City, Aug. 11, 1990

In 1990, Aerosmith was at the absolute peak of their renewed popularity, thanks largely to MTV's support of their flashy music videos like "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" and "Love in an Elevator." One of MTV's most popular original programs at the time was MTV Unplugged, where the biggest names in music performed live sets of their hits in an intimate, stripped-down acoustic setting. Aerosmith's famed blues-based boogie seemed like a perfect match for the format, so it was inevitable that the two sides would eventually meet.

Aerosmith took a brief detour from their sold-out Pump concert tour to tape an "Unplugged" performance on August 11, 1990 at New York City's Ed Sullivan Theater (future home of David Letterman's and Stephen Colbert's Late Shows). The show premiered on MTV just over a month later, in mid-September (some sources say it first aired on Sept. 18th, others the 20th) and it showcased the Bad Boys of Boston at the absolute top of their game, running through a set of classics in front of a small but appreciative studio audience.

Oddly enough, Aerosmith's Unplugged performance was never released on CD or home video after it aired, even though it was fairly common for artists to do so at the time. Fortunately for fans, there are a number of... ahem... let's just say "unofficial" CDs (cough cough) of the performance available for diehard collectors who know where to look.

"Seasons of Wither"

The Performance

The CD starts off with a spirited run through "Hangman Jury," a stomper from 1987's mega-comeback Permanent Vacation, though apparently this track didn't make the cut for the MTV airing. Thus, as far as MTV viewers were concerned, Aerosmith's set kicked off with "Monkey On My Back," from the then-current Pump album. Steven Tyler is in fine voice throughout, and the rest of the band sound like they're having fun playing in this laid-back, non-amplified format. In a tip of the hat to the Doors' legendary Ed Sullivan Show performance in the same theater, a cover of "Love Me Two Times" (which was also part of the regular Pump tour set list at the time) is an early highlight.

The rest of the program is pretty much a dream set list for fans of Aerosmith's golden '70s period, with one classic after another. A reverent rendition of the moody ballad "Seasons of Wither" from 1974's Get Your Wings (a personal favorite) and the spirited, sassy "Big Ten Inch Record" (from Toys in the Attic) lead into "One Way Street" and a raunchy cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning." By the time they hit "Dream On," Aerosmith are totally in the groove and the audience is having a blast. "Milk Cow Blues," "Toys in the Attic," and "Walkin' The Dog" follow, but the peak of the set is their rendition of the Yardbirds' "Train Kept A Rollin'," which has been a live-set staple since Aerosmith's formation. They actually run through "Train" twice, once at normal speed and once in a "slow version" (I'm not sure which one made it into the final MTV airing) before closing with the down n' dirty "Last Child."

The audio on this CD was apparently taken from a DVD master of the show, so I have no complaints about the sound quality. The only nitpick I have is that much of the band members' between-song banter with one another and the audience as they noodle around on their instruments is left in, which sometimes goes on for a minute or more at a time. If I were in the studio audience during the taping this wouldn't be a distraction, of course, but on a CD it interrupts the flow of the set. (I also feel a bit sorry for the audience member who yells out in vain for the band to play "Kings & Queens" over and over again, by the way...) On an official CD release, interludes like those would likely have been edited out to tighten things up, but on a bootleg, such quirks are part of the deal.

"Love Me Two Times" (Doors cover)

The Mystery

Every time I listen to this killer performance, I scratch my head and wonder, "Why the hell did this never get a legitimate release?" Think of all the other artists who struck gold or platinum by releasing their Unplugged sets on CD. Eric Clapton's was the biggest success of his long career, and MTV Unplugged discs by acts such as 10,000 Maniacs, Mariah Carey, Tony Bennett, and Nirvana (to name just a few) sold like hot cakes too. If Aerosmith had put this one out, it likely would've been another multi-platinum smash for them!

Perhaps Unplugged was left on the shelf because Pump was still riding high on the Billboard charts at the time, and the band didn't want to flood the market with product. Maybe it had something to do with copyright schism between their record labels -- only two songs on Unplugged came from albums released on their then-current label, Geffen Records, with the rest of the set drawn from their '70s albums on Columbia.

Whatever the reason may be, I'm glad I finally was able to add this legendary set to my Aerosmith collection after so many years.

"One Way Street"

© 2021 Keith Abt

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