This live recording acted as the original Maniacs’ swan song. Natalie Merchant departed after its release, and launched a solo career that started very promisingly. The Maniacs were to continue with viola player Mary Ramsey stepping in for Natalie. The MTV Unplugged disc was to produce the band’s one big hit, namely a cover of “Because The Night” that effectively became their calling card as far as casual listeners were (and are) concerned.
As I think you already know, I usually look askance at live albums. I do love live music, but I don’t enjoy listening to songs recorded live on a disc. Live music entails a communion that is not translated into digital tape. To me, a live album is only any good if you were there that day. It gives you the chance to relive what went down and do it all over again. Others might enjoy it, but enjoying something and being touched by something are two different things. But this particular live disc by the Maniacs is incredible – it is as enjoyable as it is touching. Maybe that is owing to the fact that they were going through the motions when they recorded it. The impending sense of separation might have given them a special cohesiveness that night. The fact is that as the first notes are strummed you feel such a sense of sadness and such a sense of joy that words will never suffice. The first song is “These Are Days”, and Natalie’s voice hints at the power she will unleash all through the concert
The setlist includes many songs from “Our Time In Eden” (“Candy Everybody Wants” is done delectably, and this version of “I’m Not The Man” makes me appreciate the studio take best) and “In My Tribe”. These include a lively “Like The Weather” with the percussion shining like a crazy diamond, and an effective “What’s The Matter Here” – I did never like the song, but Natalie provides such a realized delivery (especially the “and don’t you think/that I won’t use it” part) that it wins me over time and again.
Conversely, I expected a lot more from “Jezebel”. I thought that an Unplugged disc would be the perfect framework for the song, but the performance is strangely insipid.
The tracks that I am yet to mention are all high points. “Eat For Two” and “Stockton Gala Days” benefit from different arrangements – the former is completely lush while the latter is very edgy. “Trouble Me” is as rotund as ever, and “Gold Rush Brides” keeps its evocative force intact.
I have learned to always ask a lot from the Maniacs. They can deliver it, time and again. I didn’t know if it would be acceptable to ask yet for more when it came to this album. They had done their job, and they had done it splendidly. With this album, they showed us that the only way to go is forwards. The first step might give us a little pain, but the rest of the journey brings solace. If you cry because you couldn’t see the sun, the tears won’t let you see the stars. And that is the true moral of the story.