Liam Gallagher Shows up Decades Late to ‘MTV Unplugged’ and Puts on a Spirited Show
In 1996, “MTV “Unplugged” was a rite of passage for the biggest names of the times. Nirvana, Kiss, and Mariah Carey put their gear aside and went acoustic in intimate, often historic sessions. Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis are as famous for their rivalry as their music, and the friction between the two reached a climax when their turn came to unplug. Lead singer Liam abandoned the band at the last minute, leaving Noel, the primary songwriter, to take up vocal duties as Liam drank beers and heckled him from the crowd. Nearly a quarter century later, as the vestigial institution that is MTV attempts to reclaim some of its former lustre with a new series of “Unplugged” performances, it reaches out to a figure who might have given it more publicity through his absence than any others did through their presence. Liam Gallagher’s “MTV Unplugged (Live at Hull City Hall)” is as memorable of a performance as one would expect from a personality as colorful as Gallagher’s — for better and for worse.
The album begins with the panoramic sound of a roaring audience, too energetic for an “unplugged” performance. Anyone who lived through Oasis’ ‘90s heyday will feel a surge of the old spirit as the younger Gallagher launches into “Wall of Glass.” It’s an understandable choice for an opener, being the lead single from Gallagher’s first solo album, 2017’s “As You Were,” but it’s the only song here in which Gallagher’s singing doesn’t match up to the studio version. A few moments in, he’s beaming with his trademark, nasal theatrics, but his utterances fall a bit short at times. Organs takes the place of the original harmonica, and female backing singers chime in during the chorus, putting a new spin on the sound.
Gallagher is the type of provocateur one would expect to take artistic license as far as he can just for a bit of fun, but he stays faithful to the originals on most songs. “Some Might Say” from Oasis’ definitive 1995 album “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” comes in an ideal acoustic translation. “Morning Glory” was an album full of overdriven guitars playing progressions that blurred into the noise, so the piano-heavy arrangement here recasts the song with some refreshing clarity. Next comes “Now That I Found You,” a standout from Gallagher’s last solo album, “Why Me? Why Not?” The song was inspired by Gallagher’s reunion with his daughter Molly, and he gives a shout out to her before launching in. The unplugged version loses much of its punch in translation, as the live ensemble jettisons the central guitar riff and other memorable features, leaving behind a relatively stagnant tune. There is a certain fresh appeal, however, to the mellow uniformity, and Gallagher is in top form.
“One Of Us,” another cut from the same album, stays faithful, as it was essentially unplugged already. An outstanding string section takes great liberties in dressing up the song. The backing singers, on the other hand, sound quite out of place with their soulful, gospel-esque stylings. While their studio contributions come subdued and blended into a polished mix, their loud live performances slant the dynamic. Like the entourage that the Rolling Stones sometimes bring on tour, the singers put on a performance both spirited and technically impressive, but their rootsy sound clashes stylistically with the band’s defining aesthetic.
Oasis cut “Stand By Me,” from 1997’s “Be Here Now,” is a song with an anthemic, singalong chorus, so it naturally shines in a setting like this. This time, the backing singers fill out the sound without being overbearing, and the strings elevate the performance into a different plane altogether. Gallagher treats die hard fans to a deep cut, “Sad Song,” which appeared as a bonus track on the Japanese version of Oasis’ 1994 legendary debut “Definitely Maybe.” Stranger yet, the original song featured Noel on vocals. As anyone familiar with the two brothers would expect, Liam’s version is less inhibited, more spirited and idiosyncratic. The younger Gallagher stretches out his vowels as always, and it makes for a soaring stadium performance. He builds on momentum with “Cast No Shadow,” another “What’s the Story” number, here revitalized with triumphant orchestration. The original song featured Noel chiming in on certain lines, a role that the backing singers now take up. Their gliding contributions reinvent the chorus with a novel, rather ethereal feel, but elsewhere their decidedly un-Oasis style still gnaws at the sound.
Gallagher introduces “Once,” from his latest solo album, and comments,“I want to dedicate it to Bonehead, who gets to do MTV Unplugged twice.” Bonehead, of course, is the Oasis guitarist who actually showed up for their first “Unplugged” session, and joins the band here for the Oasis numbers. “Once” is another compelling performance, faithful to the album version, save for a segment in which Gallagher repeats the titular word, now unprocessed, in full Mancunian vernacular, sounding a bit like the Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder. “Gone” follows, winding the set down nicely with lyrics like “Before I go, I’ll tell you how I feel.” There’s a section in which the backing singers egg Gallagher on, repeating, “Say It,” and the whole affair becomes a bit of a farce. Luckily, Gallagher’s persona is so ridiculous already that it works. Everything is captured in ideal proportions, from the steady strum of the acoustic guitars to the swelling strings, which here embellish every gesture, and spin the song into something epic.
Everything could have been perfect if Gallagher just left it there. But impudent showman that he is, he goes in for the grand finale, and cheapens the entire undertaking with a quite pathetic rendition of “Champagne Supernova.” This song was the pinnacle of Oasis’ ‘90s live show, an epic performance that indulgently stretched the studio version out to nearly ten minutes. As a song defined largely by its excesses, it’s a poor choice for an unplugged performance, let alone the finale of an unplugged concert. The scant, shortened version here is an egregious misstep.
In a way, the incomprehensibly poor choice to include “Champagne Supernova” is a charming blunder, fitting with the foolhardiness that is Gallagher’s greatest claim to fame. If the set were too prudent and measured, it wouldn’t really seem like a Liam Gallagher work. Spontaneity, proud tackiness, and a bold disregard for anyone’s opinion have characterized Gallagher since day one, and continue to do so on the latest album. Fortunately, save for the overbearing backing vocals and a slightly underwhelming performance on the opener, everything on display is immaculate. Gallagher plays a balanced mix of solo songs and Oasis numbers, with a fair number of hits and a couple surprises. In an intimate but animated crowd, with a tight, spirited ensemble, he proves himself again a performer of the highest rank. Anyone wondering why MTV invited him back after he spurned them need only listen to the album.
“MTV Unplugged (Live at Hull City Hall)” is available June 12 on Apple Music.