Music Blogs

15 of the best stripped-back performances

  • By AndyVale
  • 17 September 2013

I got into acoustic music properly around 2007. I'd been all about full-blooded Rock for years, but began branching out into other areas. I interviewed a guy who had recently moved from being in bands to trying his hand at solo singer-songwriting. One of the things he said he liked about playing with a stripped back sound is that there's nowhere to hide.

In music, you can't polish a turd but you can cover it in icing and pour chocolate sprinkles on it. Bad songwriting can be masked by a massive production, auto-tune or some jagged distortion, but if you take away all of those tricks then a poor song wilts like a dead weed. If your vocals, lyrics or musicianship aren't up to scratch then you're going to get found out when the safety nets are removed.

So today we're going to look at some of the best stripped-back performances out there.

Got a favourite acoustic/stripped back performance? Let us know in the comment box.

We've aimed to get a mix of old and new, as well as different genres. Some were formally loud and boisterous, others are kept similar to their original style but still live. To keep it interesting I've banned the Live Lounge, and John Lewis adverts.

Tom Waits - Lord I've Been Changed

This song was one of many high points on Tom's Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards triple disc album. Here we have Tom in a shack way out in the country, belting out this traditional gospel number with his trademark gravel-scraped howl. You can see the man's soul.

The 1975 - Sex

It's no secret that I'm in love with this band. They were my highlight of Reading Festival and this song was the one that started the love affair. It was an acoustic version of this track that we recorded for one of my radio shows (hear it at about 25:35 here) that grabbed my attention. Matty's delivery conveys the right level of distraught frustration without resorting to outright whinging. Here's a similar version.

Bruce Springsteen - Thunder Road

This one's a poem really. Sure, all songs with lyrics could be considered poems. But this one is a cut above, if you know the song you probably knew that anyway. But even a total Springsteen n00b can see the craftmanship in this version. With just a piano for backing we can see the golden bones that The Boss built it on.

Adele - Someone Like You

I know, it's become clichéd now. Everyone and their gran knows this one. But turn off the cynicism because it's blinding too many people to one of the greatest talents of our time. Seriously, this performance will be (correctly) looked back upon with equal reverence that we give to Elvis, The Beatles, Tina Turner or any legend you care to name. Time stopped when Adele dropped this one, it was the moment she became an icon. The Brits is the most sterile performing platform imaginable, which is why it's so special that she managed to transcend the blandness of it all to deliver something so pure. They've tried to mimic this moment since then, and they'll probably try every year. Pointless. Anyway, just listen. This doesn't need defending.

John Martyn - May You Never

Just look at how happy he is. Grinning, and laughing as if he wrote the song yesterday rather than 20+ years before. His voice has aged with an oaky tint and greets us like an old friend.

Ghostpoet - Survive It

Imagine getting into a cab and having this opposite you. Obar looking you in the eyes, lazily drawling out his hopes and fears while an ambulance passes in the background.

Emma Stevens - Dreaming Trees

A hauntingly beautiful number from someone who has been making her name based upon her more upbeat stuff over the last few months. This track is a highlight of Emma Stevens four recent EPs and was written shortly after she lost her mother. Here we see all of the layers totally pulled back, with just Emma left to tell her story.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole - White Sandy Beach of Hawai'i

Big Iz is best known for his version of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World'. It was taken from Facing Future, which is the biggest selling album by a Hawaiin artist. Another deliciously relaxing number from that album is his version of 'White Sandy Beach of Hawai'i'. His record company were smart enough to record him singing it on such a beach. Interestingly enough, the original songwriter was actually a Vietnamese man who wasn't identified until 2005.

Gabrielle Aplin - Please Don't Say You Love Me

Almost a year before this was a top-10 hit, Gabrielle sat in the middle of a traffic jam on the M1 and busted it out to pass the time. She also did a great little version of 'It Ain't Me Babe' while she was there too. It's odd to see people idly pottering by while a future chart-topper strums out what would become one of the most ubiquitous songs of the following year.

Johnson Jay - Lydia

Johnson Jay (previously JJMD) was the guy I mentioned right at the beginning of this article, so it makes sense that I include one of his solo performances. This is a cautionary love song that was definitely about A FRIEND of his, the second verse is a masterpiece.

Joshua Bell - Various

This was part of an experiment for the Washington Post, who wrote a Pulitzer winning piece on it. Internationally renowned violin maestro Joshua Bell swapped his usual concert attire for a baseball cap and jeans before heading to a Subway station and busked a 45 minute set. He has played to heads of state all over the globe and tickets to his shows are often well over $100. Playing some of the finest pieces of music ever written, and doing so on a 300 year old $3.5million violin, he managed to scrape $32.17 out of hurried passers by. Out of the 1000+ people who walked by, seven stopped to listen.

Rosanne Cash - I Still Miss Someone

At a memorial show for her Daddy, Rosanne sings one of his best songs in a toned down manner. Her performance is dignified, reflective, and intensely personal.

Placebo - Special K

Taking a reckless favourite and pulling it down, this feels like the bleary-eyed comedown following the carefree trysts of the night before.

Jamie Lawson - Wasn't Expecting That

This song catapaulted Lawson to an unexpected stardom (many puns were made) over in Ireland after this clip became one of the breakout hits of 2011. We covered this story more a few weeks back, it's incredibly heart-warming. The song is a lifelong tale of love with a harrowing end that even the performer seems cut-up about.

Corey Harris & Otha Turner - Sittin' On Top Of The World

This one was from Martin Scorsese's legendary series of documentaries, The Blues. Blues guitarist Corey Harris plays the classic Mississippi Sheiks song with 90-something year-old Otha Turner, who was one of the last living well-known traditional fife players. The pair enjoyed playing on Otha's porch so much that they were due to record on Corey's Mississippi to Mali album, however Otha died a week before they were due to record and was replaced by his 12 year-old granddaughter.

That will do for now. It's time to turn over to you.

Is there any we missed? Let us know what your favourite acoustic/stripped back performances are below.

The Live Lounge + John Lewis ban is now lifted as well. So go wild!

Andy is a Supajam writer who has been a small-fry at numerous Commerical, BBC and Student radio stations over the last 6 years. He is also a music promoter in the South-East of the UK. He has a website where he interviews musicians with only one question, and he is currently typing in third-person. You can tweet abuse at him if you fancy letting off some steam.