Tesla: from Five Man Acoustical Jam to Twisted Wires

In 1990, the hard rocking Sacramento-based quintet Tesla did something that was almost unheard of at the time for hard rock and heavy metal bands: record an all acoustic album.

The result was Tesla’s biggest selling album to date, the multi-platinum Five Man Acoustical Jam.

“It was an accident. And then it just happened to blow up in a good way,” lead singer Jeff Keith told the Deseret News during a recent interview.

Five Man Acoustical Jam was recorded on a whim while Tesla was on tour and had a couple of “days off.” But rather than sit in a hotel room and do nothing, the group quickly booked a couple of acoustic gigs and recorded them. About the same time, while doing a live radio interview, they played a cover of “Signs,” a 1971 song by Five Man Electrical Jam. The song became an instant hit and suddenly the record company was itching to release their acoustic concert on an album.

When asked whether he was surprised at the success of Five Man Acoustical Jam, Keith replied, “Absolutely. We forgot we even had it.”

Tuesday night at The Depot, Tesla celebrates the 20th anniversary of Five Man Acoustical Jam (which is actually 21 years old) and the release of their new acoustic album, Twisted Wires, with an all all acoustic concert.

Five Man Acoustical Jam is credited by some as being responsible for sparking the MTV Unplugged phenomenon of the early 1990s, even though because of scheduling conflicts Tesla never actually played for MTV Unplugged. But the good natured, and humble, Keith isn’t ready to accept all the credit. After all, Led Zeppelin played acoustic guitars on a quite a number of their songs. The only difference was Tesla played acoustic for an entire evening.

“We don’t deserve credit for (the acoustic fad). We just happened to play an acoustic set live and recorded it. By no means are we the pioneers of the acoustic guitars,” Keith said, while adding that the real first “acoustic concert” may have been “some cowboy sitting around the campfire.”

But what Five Man Acoustical Jam did for Tesla was set them apart from other bands of the era that relied more on image than musical talent.

Since their debut album in 1986, Mechanical Resonance, blue collar rockers Tesla have mixed hard rock, lightning dual guitar licks and blues-rock to produce consistently high quality rock-n-roll. Despite touring with the likes of Motley Crue and Poison in the 1980s and early ’90s, Tesla never fell into the glam band category.

“We never really relied on image, we were relying more on the right songs from the heart,” Keith said.

Tesla relied on nothing but their instruments and playing skills when performing live and not on production tools to enhance their sound.

That raw energy shined on Five Man Acoustic Jam. The button to record was hit when the band walked on stage and the red button to turn it off was pushed when the band walked off, Keith said. And that was the album.

“That’s what I think is the (greatness) of that record. It’s just pure. Some of the silliest things are on there. But it’s live,” he said.

After “Signs” exploded in popularity, other bands tried to do the acoustic thing. But Keith said not all of them could. He said his friend Dee Snider of Twisted Sister would sarcastically (and jokingly) say, “Thanks a lot, Tesla” whenever he played “Signs” on his radio show.

“It made everybody go, ‘We want to see everybody do that.’ But some bands were like, ‘We rely on this and that and we can’t do that,'” he said.

Even after Five Man Acoustical Jam, Tesla continued to dedicate a portion of their arena rock concerts to pulling out bar stools during the middle of the show and playing five or six songs acoustically.

“It was the coolest thing,” Keith said.

On their new album, Twisted Wires, Tesla combine the past and the present. The album contains six songs previously recorded with original guitarist Tommy Skeoch and six with new guitarist Dave Rude. Skeoch and Tesla parted ways in 2006. Whether he was fired or the split was amicable depends on which side you ask.

The acoustic recordings with Skeoch, his final Tesla recordings, were originally meant for a box set which Keith said didn’t materialize. They are also some of the only recordings saved from a fire in bassist Brian Wheat’s recording studio in 2010 where many Tesla tapes were destroyed. The other six tracks are with Rude, an excellent compliment to lead guitarist Frank Hannon’s guitar wizardry. Rude has been a smooth fit into the band since Skeoch’s departure.

On Twisted Wires, Tesla remake some of their hardest rockers, like “Hang Tough” and “Edison’s Medicine,” into acoustic recordings. And they pull out more unexpected covers, like the wonderful acoustic remake of Climax Blues Band’s 1980 hit “I Love You.”

Over the past few years, the band has been as busy as they have at any point during their 25 year history.

“We’re still writing songs from the heart that we believe in that we can play night after night,” Keith said.

The band has also remain close to their fans. Recently, Keith and Hannon answered questions from fans for an hour on a live webcast. Hannon has also been known to post on the band’s fan message board. Keith, who admits he doesn’t get on his laptop as much as he’d like, says he leaves the commenting to other band members while he may look once in a while to read fan comments.

“I’m just the guy who rocks the mic,” he said. “Frank can type faster. I’m good on the phone.”

Tickets to Tuesday night’s show can be purchased at The Depot box office.

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