Seems that everyone’s had a Trocadero memory to share since the news broke last month that the Chinatown venue would be closing: I’ve seen plenty about Dylan’s two-night Troc stand in December of 1997.
Judging by my social-media feeds, you’d think 12,000 people somehow crammed into the 1,200-capacity club when Kendrick Lamar made his Philadelphia debut there in November 2015. And there’s been lots of chatter about that Trocadero rite of passage: getting drenched by the club’s sprinkler system, usually set off by someone holding up a lighter in the balcony.
Before the venue closes for good (it currently has events scheduled into June, including a local rock showcase on May 19), I’d like to put a word out there for a Troc show I attended that I haven’t seen getting much love: Tesla’s all-ages acoustic show on July 2, 1990 — a performance that was recorded and eventually released that fall as the Five Man Acoustical Jam album, and basically ushered in the "Unplugged” movement, where everyone from alternative bands to classic rockers and pop divas scored hits with acoustic-based covers or reinterpretations of their own material recorded live.
Tesla recorded its stripped-down cover of the Five Man Electrical Band’s 1971 anti-establishment anthem “Signs” that evening, and it would reach No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, signaling to artists, record labels and MTV (whose Unplugged series debuted several months before Tesla’s Troc show) that there was gold in them there acoustic versions.
So you can thank Tesla (who will play the Keswick Theater in Glenside on Tuesday, April 23 in support of their latest album Shock) or blame them for the ubiquity of Eric Clapton’s lounge-y “Layla.” Lead singer Jeff Keith just doesn’t think they deserve all the credit for kicking off a movement he recognizes was already underway.
“People had been doing stuff acoustically for years — Zeppelin, the Eagles; we just decided to do [an entire] acoustic show, record it and release it,” Keith said. “It was natural for us. All our songs always had an acoustic base. And we had just done an acoustic set at the Bammies [Bay Area Music Awards]. MTV knew about that and they asked us to do the first Unplugged show but I was in the process of having dental work done, so we had to wait a few months.”
Tesla was gearing up to do something decidedly non-acoustic — opening summer amphitheater shows on Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood” tour — when they booked a handful of acoustic club shows to fill in off days. At the last minute, a plan was hatched to record and film the Troc gig for posterity. It captured a band weaned on classic rock and skilled at weaving acoustic guitars into its sound playing to its strengths by stripping down such originals as “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)” and “The Way It Is,” along with such covers as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi” and the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.”
It also meant the band had product in the can ready to meet market demand. The week before the Troc show, the band played “Signs” live on-air at Boston rock station WAAF. By summer’s end, the in-studio performance was blowing up the station’s request line and Tesla’s label at the time, Geffen Records, wanted to release the Troc show as a live album. There was a catch, however. As is often the case with live shows, things weren’t note-perfect that night (you can hear Keith’s typically raspy voice morph into a pitch-y shriek in spots on the album), so the label insisted that the band go into the studio to fix the rough spots. Tesla dug in its heels and refused. That hard-line stance was validated after “Signs” was all over radio and MTV, with the album eventually becoming the band’s biggest seller, moving more than two million copies.
“We were flat-out told by Geffen that we were going to be sorry for not re-doing some stuff,” Keith said. “They said, ‘Listen to how bad you sang this and that.’ And I said ‘Hey, man, it’s live. You try singing it live.’ We just told them either shelve it or use it the way it is, and that’s the beauty of it.”
The beauty of Tesla’s warts-and-all show was evident at the Troc that night. Here was a band you typically saw as an opener at the Spectrum, with a mere 45 minutes and limited lights and PA to work with. Now they were right in your face, chatting and strumming and trying to fake their way through Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” with the casual vibe of a local band playing a backyard party. You look over to your right and there’s Mets all-star pitcher Sid Fernandez — a big fan and good friend of the band according to Keith -- rocking out.
"That show was just us being creative and raw, having fun, being ourselves,” Keith says. “I think that’s why we had success into the ’90s even after the grunge movement came in. We were always ourselves. This is where we are today, still being ourselves. The Trocadero show is a big part of that. I’m sorry to hear it’s going away”
“All these places where we did all this magical stuff — the Trocadero, the Channel in Boston — they’re falling to the wayside but they’ll never really go away because of the memories we have of it.”