CD Review: Aerosmith “Unplugged 1990”

I’m in if it has a good guitar riff and attitude. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been an obsessive hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector.

“Unplugged 1990” by Aerosmith

On August 11, 1990, at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, a live recording was made. 2017 (Unofficial Release) Zip City

It was only a matter of time before the two sides met. MTV’s support of flashy music videos like “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “Love in an Elevator” helped Aerosmith reach the pinnacle of their resurgent popularity in 1990. MTV Unplugged, where some of the biggest names in music performed live sets of their hits in an intimate, stripped-down acoustic setting, was one of MTV’s most popular original programs at the time.

On August 11, 1990, Aerosmith took a break from their sold-out Pump concert tour to tape an “Unplugged” performance at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City (future home of David Letterman’s and Stephen Colbert’s Late Shows). The show debuted on MTV in mid-September (some sources say it first aired on September 18th, others say September 20th), and it featured the Bad Boys of Boston at the top of their game, performing a set of classics in front of a small but appreciative studio audience.

Even though it was fairly common for artists to do so at the time, Aerosmith never released their Unplugged performance on CD or home video after it aired.

For diehard collectors who know where to look, there are a number of… ahem… let’s just call them “unofficial” CDs (cough cough ** bootlegs ** cough cough ) of the performance available.

“Wither Seasons” is a collection of short stories.

Performing Arts

Steven Tyler is in excellent voice throughout, and the rest of the band appears to be having a good time playing in this unplugged, unplugged format. As a result, Aerosmith’s set began with “Monkey On My Back,” from the then-current Pump album, as far as TV viewers were concerned. 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, paying homage to the Doors’ legendary Ed Sullivan Show performance in the same theater. The CD opens with a rousing rendition of “Hangman Jury,” a stomper from 1987’s mega-comeback Permanent Vacation, though this track apparently didn’t make the cut for MTV airing.

They actually perform “Train” twice, once at normal speed and once in a “slow version” (I believe the “slow” version made it into the final MTV broadcast) before ending with the raunchy “Last Child.” The rest of the show is essentially a dream set list for fans of Aerosmith’s golden era, with classic after classic. “One Way Street” and a raunchy cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” follow 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). The set concludes with “Milk Cow Blues,” “Toys in the Attic,” and “Walkin’ The Dog,” but the highlight is their cover of the Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A Rollin’,” which has been a live-set staple since Aerosmith’s inception. Aerosmith is totally in the zone by the time they hit “Dream On,” and the audience is having a great time.

Of course, if I were in the studio audience during the taping, this wouldn’t be a problem, but on a CD, it detracts from the flow of the show. Interludes like those would almost certainly be edited out of an official CD release to tighten things up, but on a bootleg, such quirks are part of the package. My only quibble is that much of the band members’ between-song banter with one another and the audience while noodle around on their instruments is left in, which can go on for a minute or more at a time. (Though I felt sorry for the audience member who yells over and over for the band to play “Kings & Queens”) I have no complaints about the sound quality because the audio on this CD was apparently taken from a DVD master of the show.

(Doors cover) “Love Me Two Times”

The Mysterious Situation

MTV Unplugged discs by acts like 10,000 Maniacs, Mariah Carey, Tony Bennett, and Nirvana (to name a few) were also huge hits. Consider how many other artists have achieved gold or platinum status by releasing their Unplugged sets on CD. This would have been another multi-platinum hit for Aerosmith if they’d released it! I scratch my head every time I hear this incredible performance and wonder, “Why the hell did this never get a legitimate release?”

Perhaps it was due to a copyright dispute between their record labels; only two songs on Unplugged were from their then-current home, Geffen Records, with the rest drawn from their Columbia albums from the 1970s. Pump was still riding high on the Billboard charts at the time, and the band didn’t want to flood the market with product, so they put their Unplugged on the shelf.

Whatever the case may be, I’m glad that after all these years, I was finally able to add this legendary set to my Aerosmith collection.

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