MTV opens summer season with uneven 'Unplugged' set


Success has a way of turning innovations into institutions, and that definitely seems to be the case with "MTV Unplugged."

At first, these all-acoustic live sets offered viewers the chance to see well-known bands performing in an intimate, informal environment. It wasn't something everyone did, and as such, seemed sort of special.

Now, of course, "Unplugged" dates are almost expected of major artists, and everyone from Eric Clapton to Paul McCartney to Neil Young has taped shows. So it hardly seems surprising that MTV has decided to kick off its summer season with a week's worth of new shows -- after all, they need something more than "Beavis and Butthead" to keep their audience indoors at night.

Fortunately, instead of going after mainstream megastars, MTV is opting for something a little more alternative.

Tonight, for example, there's "Uptown Unplugged," a one-hour rap and R&B; show featuring Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Father MC, Christopher Williams and Heavy D.

Then, tomorrow, it's a half-hour with 10,000 Maniacs, followed by 30-minute shows from Soul Asylum on Wednesday and Midnight Oil on Thursday. (All shows start at 10 p.m.)

"Uptown Unplugged" is probably the most ambitious of the four, and not just because it offers the widest range of artists.

Working in a revue format, it keeps a single house band -- the soulful and impressive Swing Mob -- in place as each act comes on and off, so the show's pacing has as much to do with who's onstage as what is being performed.

In that sense, Jodeci may not have been the best choice to get things going, particularly since their set-opener, "Come and Talk to Me,"swings unevenly between sensitive balladry and bass-pumping funk (including a brief snatch of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away Now"). But their rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Lately" is wonderfully heartfelt, though occasionally oversung.

Mary J. Blige follows, and also fails to find a consistent pace, rushing through "Real Love" before settling into the deep groove of "Sweet Thing." Things begin to pick up with Father MC's strictly-to-the-point rendition of "One Night Stand," so that when Christopher Williams appears to sing "Every Little Thing You Do," the Uptown posse really captures that old-style soul show spirit.

Still, it isn't until Heavy D hits the stage that "Uptown Unplugged" begins to smoke. For one thing, the Heavster makes better use of the band than any of his colleagues, controlling the pulse of "Is It Good to You" so completely you'd almost think he was working with a DJ; for another, he pulls the audience into his performance, so that what we see isn't just a concert, but a party.

And the mood is so contagious that by the time Aaron Hall introduces the closing jam, you'll find yourself wondering where the hourwent.

But our perception of time, as Einstein pointed out, is relative. So if "Uptown Unplugged" ends up seeming short at 60 minutes, "10,000 Maniacs Unplugged" seems to drag interminably at 30.

It isn't just that the arrangements -- which add up to seven ringers to the Maniacs' line-up -- are bloated and overblown; what really sinks this show is that the band appears to have completely lost the thread, flailing ineffectually at the likes of "Candy Everybody Wants" and "These Are Days." Most embarrassing of all is "Like the Weather," which finds singer Natalie Merchant struggling uncharacteristically to stay on pitch.

Soul Asylum has no trouble adjusting to the expanded acoustic format of its "Unplugged" performance. Granted, some of the group's songs, like the show-opening "Runaway Train," were meant to be played that way, but others take on new dimensions through the re-arrangements.

Perhaps the most stunning is "Somebody to Shove," which hands the original's guitar intro to a string trio for a sound that's something like Soul Asylum meets the Kronos Quartet.

Unfortunately, the show's biggest surprise -- a cameo by Lulu on "ToSir with Love" -- is also its greatest disappointment.

Sure, Dave Pirner and the band play wonderfully, but Lulu appears to be under the impression she's Shirley Bassey, and all but undoes the song in a needless display of vocal embellishment.

Saving the best for last, MTV closes this set of premieres with an unplugged set from Midnight Oil.

Like the others, the Oils have added to their lineup -- percussionist Bashiri Johnson joins the rhythm section -- but what makes this show so special is what's missing. Because without the roar of electric guitars to fill out the band's sound, the Oils' vocals are allowed to shine -- and that turns out to be the secret of the band's sound.

Consequently, "Sell My Soul" is transformed from a raucous rocker into a lean, tuneful number rich with vocal harmonies, while the unplugged "Blue Sky Mining" reveals a dramatic range far greater than the electric version.

Perhaps the most stunning performance, though, is "Truganini," which adds new sparkle to the melody while maintaining all the muscular momentum of the single.

This is what "MTV Unplugged" should be.

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