2010 marks the 20th anniversary of MTV Unplugged. It was supposed to last 13 episodes when it debuted in November of 1989 but has since topped over 120 shows and a third of them have gone on to be released as albums. Paul McCartney took the concept over the top when he released his successful Unplugged performance in 1991. Clearly fans love seeing the inner workings of the music, without the distractions of producers, walls of vocals, electric guitars and drum loops. Real musicians making real music in real time. Without a net. Milli Vanilli wannabees whose careers survive with the use of studio effects or drummers who can’t keep time need not apply.
As much as I love playing with my band, there’s something to those piano/vocal only shows.
As much as I love playing with my band, there is something to be said for those piano/vocal only shows where intense intimacy can be established. Without the wall of sound the crowd relaxes like they are in a living room, focused on the message, with open hearts. Instead of playing to the listeners, the unplugged realm creates a playing with the audience, more like a concerto with artist as soloist and the audience as orchestra.
All-time great unplugged shows are now easily found thanks to mtv.com and YouTube. Some of my favorites are those where the familiar arrangement is anything but unplugged and then you get the fly-on-the-wall view of how the song might have been written. Here are some essentials: Here’s Sir Paul McCartney’s first time out with MTV proving We Can Work it Out:
Stellar guitar work on Hotel California by all time greats The Eagles:
Some of the most sublime evenings of music that I’ve performed have been after the concert. When the crowd has cleared out and several gather on the stage to jam without the house PA system on. Or back at someone’s house where everyone is surrounding a grand piano with multiple guitars strumming and hand drums pounding. There is an annual conference of Jewish educators where I perform each year and lead a singalong on the last night. About a third of the attendees pack into a sweaty room and sing for three hours straight. One piano, one mic and six hundred lead vocalists. I don’t take breaks and have an assistant on hand to mop my brow and pour water down my throat. We segue from Israeli and camp songs to the best of Motown, Disco, Elton John, Carol King and a healthy smattering of Beatles. Here’s a taste of one of those shows:
Going unplugged is not a new concept to the Jewish people. We have been “unplugging” once a week for millennia. It’s been said that more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. Without the help of our phones, computers and other “personality amplifiers” we reconnect with who we are and our place in the universe. It’s as if God is saying: “hey, get your mitts out of my creation!” The rest of the week God gives us the illusion that we are making a living so that we feel like partners in shaping the world. But one day a week, the illusion stops and we see the world through godly eyes. We leave behind the great symphony of our lives and are left with a simple song.
The Jewish people have been “unplugging” once a week for millennia.
Unplugging is such an integral aspect of the Sabbath that it seems ironic how so many synagogues are striving to increase membership by offering monthly rock concerts on Friday nights. There is something to be said for sweet simplicity. Praying in a blissful cappella so you can hear yourself think and sing and delve deeply into your hopes and aspirations, singing God’s praises surrounded by a loving community of fellow worshippers. Concerts, jam sessions and kumzitzes have their place on the weekdays. But when candlelighting hits on Friday afternoon, I’ll take my Shabbat with Shalom.
I live in a neighborhood in LA where “Shabbat Shalom” is the operative greeting for the thousands of Jews walking the streets. When you think about it, those words mean more than “have a peaceful Sabbath.” It’s more a wish that your friends share your blissful Shabbat state of mind. John Lennon would have us imagine a world living in peace between all peoples and nations. On Shabbat we LIVE in that world. No imagination necessary. It’s more than lip service or lofty dreams. It’s living in a state of peace with creation and when it’s time to plug back in on Saturday night, we are grounded, connected and ready for the onslaught of our day-to-day.
Shabbat is a habit that takes some effort to get used to. Initially one is consumed by all the things you cannot do. But after a while it is as natural as breathing. God is described by the prophets as being heard in a “still, small voice.” Without unplugging it’s impossible to hear it. God speaks to us in so many ways and we are masters of methods to ignore it. These days we have more ways than ever to banish that precious commodity of silence. On Shabbat we can re-enter the quiet conversation and restore our relationship. The word for belief in God is “emunah.” It comes from the word “uman” or craftsman. In other words, we have to make an effort to shape it, to consciously enter the relationship. By unplugging on Shabbat we have the opportunity to bring faith into the world of action, making our trust in God tangible.
My kids have been trained that on Shabbat they are not to even touch anything with an on/off switch. When Friday night hits, there are no iPods, phones or laptops. No Netflix or Xbox. We get our kids back, for one precious day a week. As a parent I can relate to our supernal parent in heaven who must eagerly anticipate the weekly lovefest that is the Jewish Sabbath. Our media gets perpetually louder, bolder, racier and ubiquitous. It’s easy to be absorbed into the Matrix without even knowing it, to crave the world of Avatar more than our earth-bound reality. MTV has it right: a rockin’ concert or state-of-the-art movie is great but when you want a classic, you’ve got to unplug.