When the owners of the Trocadero Theatre, the venerable Chinatown music venue, announced in March that the theater would shut down later this year, it brought an outpouring of love and nostalgia from generations of Philadelphia music fans.
They looked back on their first shows and the great bands they saw there. My colleague Jenny DeHuff remembers a decade tending the bar there in this dynamite essay.
I've had some memorable times at the Troc myself, including various concerts as well as last year's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Live tour, where Rachel Bloom marveled from the stage at how strange it must be for the musical-theater crowd that watches that show to venture out to a "rock-and-roll space."
“Comin’ Atcha Live”
Yet I'll always associate the venue with a concert that I didn't go to, one that took place at the Troc nearly 30 years ago, when I was 12 years old and still 15 years away from living in Philadelphia. That show was in June 1990, and it was recorded for one of my favorite live albums of all time: Five Man Acoustical Jam, by the band Tesla. While it arrived at a time that was very much a crossroads for music, its legacy is secure.
Tesla—not to be confused with Elon Musk's electric-car company, though it is based in the same state and named after the same person—formed in California in 1981. It was an MTV staple in the hair-metal era, and while the band members looked the part, Tesla's music was very different thematically from that of, say, Mötley Crüe. They gave their albums titles like The Great Radio Controversy and Mechanical Resonance, and instead of stuff like "Girls Girls Girls," they devoted a surprisingly large percentage of their lyrics to talking up the life and legacy of their namesake, 19th-century inventor Nikola Tesla.
In the summer of 1990, Tesla had a week or so of downtime while they were preparing to tour with Mötley Crüe in support of the Dr. Feelgood album. According to an Ultimate Classic Rock history of the album, the band's manager booked them for a series of club gigs and suggested that they might want to try an unplugged show. MTV Unplugged had debuted the year before, though it wasn't yet at the height of its significance (the Grammy-winning Eric Clapton Unplugged album didn't arrive until 1992).
So the band developed an all-acoustic set that consisted of most of their own hits up to that point as well as covers of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. There was one more cover, “Signs,” a 1971 song by a relatively obscure Canadian group called Five Man Electrical Band.
A hit from the Troc
The Philadelphia show on that tour, on July 2, 1990, was recorded and released four months later as the live album Five Man Acoustical Jam. The band hadn't even wanted to release the live show but did so after "Signs" began receiving radio airplay.
In that show, while singing their hit power ballad "Love Song," singer Jeff Keith changes the lyric "don't you even worry, pretty darling" to "don't you even worry, Philadelphia." Later in that song, guitarist Frank Hannon busts out the only electrical-guitar solo of the show, which was otherwise all acoustic.
The album was a modest hit, reaching as high as 12th on the Billboard 200 in early 1991, and "Signs" was a hit single that continues to get radio play today. You can stream Five Man Acoustical Jam on Spotify.
“The Way It Is”
However, when it came to the mainstream heyday for the type of music Tesla played, the end was near. Nirvana's Nevermind arrived later in 1991, dramatically changing the face of what popular rock music was. While Tesla released a pretty strong album that year with the fantastic title Psychotic Supper, 1980s-style rock was soon eclipsed by grunge rock as the decade changed. In January 2010, during the rise of Tesla Motors, the Wall Street Journal ran an entire story about the trend of naming things for Nikola Tesla—but the band wasn't even mentioned.
Tesla, aside from a brief hiatus in the late 1990s, has continued to perform in the years since. They recently released their eighth studio album, Shock, and they're playing the Keswick Theatre on April 23. And yes, the show will contain an acoustic section.
"Tesla may have been born in the mid-'80s eruption of leather, spandex and big hair, but this band has never been about those things," says the press release announcing the group’s new album. "Their bluesy, soulful sound is strongly embedded in the roots of organic, authentic 1970s rock-and-roll."
As a 12-year-old in Minnesota, Five Man Acoustical Jam was one of the first CDs I ever owned and one I listened to a whole lot, especially once I took up playing guitar in high school. I even performed "Love Song" in at least one talent show—playing an acoustic guitar, of course.