Live albums have a rich tradition in rock music. Some of the most genre-defining albums have been live records, and for some artists these live renditions have produced the definitive versions of their songs.
The Used, in conjunction with their fifteenth anniversary as a band, have released Live and Acoustic at The Palace– an unplugged performance which took place at The Palace Theater in Los Angeles last October. What is immediately evident about this album (and from the opener “Tunnel”) is that these songs take on a completely new dimension and interpretation when performed acoustically. The strings and harp (arranged by Hiro Goto), along with a piano and a 3-piece gospel choir, provides extra magic to songs that fans should be familiar with. And of course, the whole band is performing as well, which vocalist Bert McCracken introduces early on in the show- Jeff Howard on bass, Justin Shekoski on guitar, and Dan Whitesides on drums.
If you’re familiar with the hits, a good chunk of them are here- “The Taste of Ink” comes bursting with its soaring chorus and the strings shape “All That I’ve Got” to greater effect. Imagine being covered in a warm, comfortable blanket as you hear melodies that take you back. That’s what listening to these songs is like; being doused in comfy familiarity
As the show opens, Bert sings “Tunnel” with energetic positivity. I can practically see him smile while singing the words. You can hear the audience very much involved in the performance with squeals and applause, and it’s what makes this show special in that Bert provides a unique experience for them. Almost every song begins with a personal anecdote. About becoming a father (“Overdose”), about love, and about pets that passed away (“All That I’ve Got”). Tiny details like his chatter, or the marginal whispering amongst the audience, helps to humanize the band and indicate that this show was an intimate and special one. The songs are great to begin with, but hearing them performed this way, in this setting, is even better. The wise choices of these fan-favorite songs done acoustic, and with Justin’s steady, airy strumming and Jeff’s tasteful bass, provides for a nice translation into this reductive format- stripped back and bare with audience interaction, and an audience that cares about these songs.
The arrangements of these melodies are very impressive- the band is all there but the addition of the strings give great “fill” to the overall sound. The cello, in particular, really helps to lift the songs in lieu of a guitar solo, and it enters during pivotal moments right before the chorus and subtly emphasizes the hook. And there are so many hooks here. “Lunacy Fringe,” done acoustically, really brings attention to the melody and hooks. The cello comes in halfway through and it soars.
In “The Taste Of Ink,” the single from their debut album, the audience involvement is large as they do a call and response with Bert. “So here I am, it’s in my hands” the audience sings during the chorus. Bert and the band stop briefly as the audience does an acapella: “As long as you’re alive, here I am, I promise I will take you there” and the air resonates with excitement and eager anticipation. Right after the song, he goes into an anecdote about the time he wrote the lyrics to the song 15 years ago when he realized he wanted to follow his dreams. “In my mind, that song is about freedom.”
In an unplugged setting it gets immediately apparent how good these songs are. You don’t need fuzzed-up guitars of the stars to make great music. The melody gets brought out to the forefront, and it results in a version of that song that can often annihilate the studio version. All you need is melodies, and oh, are there melodies here. And a cover as well, which showcases Bert’s passionate vocals. In fact, their performance of “Imagine” may be the best showcase of the band coming together with the strings and piano. This is a song that has been covered countless times, but there is passion in the song, and it resonates through the venue and into this listener’s ears. The “unplugged” treatment fits a lot better than a “plugged” treatment.
“On My Own,” another from their debut, closes out the show. The string section once again adds beauty to the vocals, and Dan’s drums pound and burst in unison with Jeff’s bass and Justin’s guitar with the piano as the song nears it’s climax. Even if the album doesn’t have anything you can really headbang to (although it can argued that these renditions give more intensity and power to the songs), who needs that, anyway? No one said good music had to be loud. Although I can see how the raw vocals may put some listeners off, it really suits the style and general mood of the occasion. The set on Live and Acoustic at The Palace is performed with beauty and grace, and the band members show true compassion and love for their catalogue.
The Used is:
Bert McCracken (Vocals)
Jeff Howard (Bass)
Justin Shekoski (Guitar)
Dan Whitesides (Drums)