It’s one thing to hold an audience while backed by a full band, or to smother your songwriting in layers of noise, but what happens when an artist finds themselves alone and unplugged? Sometimes, it’s awkward and slightly cringe-worthy, as all of a song’s flaws are thrown into sharp relief. Other times, it produces the most magical and spellbinding performances in the world.
To that end, I set off in search of a dozen of the finest solo acoustic performances. Let’s start with some ground rules: I was looking for one performer facing the world alone, so that ruled out incredible full-band acoustic performances by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Metronomy, Nirvana's 'Unplugged' session and, to our writer Sam Wolfson’s crushing disappointment, even One Direction. To be really strict, I even had to rule out this stunning acoustic version of ‘Back To Black’ by Amy Winehouse as someone else is playing guitar for her.
I also had to be able to find a video of the performance on YouTube, which meant ruling out one of NME.com Editor Luke Lewis’ favourites: Jeff Buckley’s 'Eternal Life' live at Sin-E. It also, devastatingly, meant missing out Bob Dylan’s peerless Royal Albert Hall set from 1966.
Even with those rules enforced, it soon became clear the toughest part of this gig would be limiting this list to twelve. I’m inevitably going to miss enough great performers to fill Wembley Arena (No Elliott Smith? I know, I know), but here’s twelve solo acoustic songs that gave me goosebumps on my goosebumps:
Let’s be honest, this whole list could have been Bruce. Has any artist ever been so adept at stripping-back his own material to reveal just how damn flawless the writing beneath is? Luke Lewis made a strong case for ‘No Surrender’ live in Toronto, and this version of ‘The Promise’ is astounding, but I might have to choose this version of ‘Born To Run’ from 1988 simply because it takes such a familiar, bombastic track and turns it into something else entirely. A master at work:
Like Springsteen, Neil Young is another songwriter who can do raucous, full-volume abandon (witness his 2009 Glastonbury headline set) but also devastate your soul with just his voice, a guitar and in this case, that staple of one-man-bands: a mouth-organ on a wire.
Spellbinding solo performances are not the sole preserve of men with guitars, as PJ Harvey proved in 2007 when she sat down at her piano for this staggering performance of ‘White Chalk’. Wait, is that the same mouth-organ on a wire that Neil Young was wearing? Probably not, but both clips were filmed at the BBC, so WHO KNOWS? (It definitely isn’t.)
Speaking of the BBC, do you remember when Pete Doherty was interviewed by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight and then played a solo acoustic version of ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’? It was a totally weird situation, especially with Wark sat directly opposite him as an awkward audience of one, and yet somehow the tender sadness of the song was only amplified by it’s incongruous setting.
Let’s go to the other end of the scale now: from an audience of one to a packed Earl’s Court. It’s 1995, Oasis are at the peak of their powers and Noel Gallagher is just a guy with a guitar who wrote the biggest song in the world. Cue singalong:
Holding a huge crowd alone takes skill, but making them all fall silent is some kind of miracle. The sort of miracle Paul Simon worked at Hyde Park last year. Hushed reverence:
Biffy Clyro take a break from rocking Wembley Arena long enough for Simon Neil to stake his claim as a solo acoustic troubadour. The crowd play their part too… all together… “build them skywards…”
“I’m the first to admit I’m pretty young,” sings Laura Marling. She’s not wrong. Just 17 when this episode of Later was filmed, it immediately established her as a startling new voice, alone but uncowed.
Solo acoustic performances tend towards the fragile and melancholic, so here’s something with a wry sense of fun: just sick enough to be totally confident. Zevon was always acutely aware of impending doom, and this performance came a couple of years before a doctor told him his shit really was fucked up. For yet another great Springsteen solo acoustic performance, check out Bruce’s cover of Zevon’s ‘My Ride’s Here’ the night after the songwriter died in 2003.
Nick Cave’s new single this week, ‘We No Who U R’, signaled a return to his piano-led balladry after the riotous diversion of Grinderman. Here’s a gorgeous solo performance of one of his masterpieces, including his story about where he wrote it:
It’s become an easy jibe against the Gaslight Anthem frontman that he wants to be the next Springsteen, but a) why would that be a bad thing? and b) he’s clearly inherited the master’s ability for solo acoustic soul-bearing. I didn’t actually see the end of this performance because I got something in my eye and had to have a little cry. Damn you, Fallon!
We’ll end with a special treat: the Arctic Monkeys man plays not one but three solo acoustic tracks in this live set, while also subtly teasing his interviewer and looking like the coolest motherfucker in rock’n’roll.