NEW YORK — Walking away from Saturday's taping of "MTV Unplugged: Korn," one couldn't help but reflect on the fact that this band actually pulled it off.
Let's face it: Korn — who helped give birth to an entire genre of aggressive, hip-hop-imbued rock during the mid-1990s and have become renowned for delivering one of the most intense and brutal live shows around — and the word "acoustic" have never appeared in the same sentence until, well, right now. This is a band whose members scream through entire live sets with such force that they can be heard over the 120 decibels they're known for pumping out onstage. This is a band that doesn't rock sitting down. So how would tracks like "Got the Life," "Blind" and "Freak on a Leash" sound unplugged? Well, different, of course — but no less ominous, passionate or intimidating.
"MTV Unplugged: Korn" — which will be released on CD February 20 and air online February 10 and on TV February 17 — was the first taping of the revived program since 2005's "Alicia Keys: Unplugged" special (see "Alicia Keys Taps Mos Def, Common For 'Inspired' 'Unplugged' "), and it was the first of several others in the works. For this particular performance, Korn called upon musical director Richard Gibbs to guide them through their 15-song set. The dreadlocked former Oingo Boingo keyboardist had collaborated previously with Korn frontman Jonathan Davis on the songs and score for the 2002 film "Queen of the Damned."
With the handwritten lyrics to several Korn tracks adorning the windows of MTV's Times Square studios and a dimly lit background that depicted a rather foreboding forest, Davis — along with guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer and bassist Reginald "Fieldy Snuts" Arvizu — inspected the stage just minutes before an audience of more than 50 Korn fans was ushered in.
Like most "Unplugged" performances, Korn's featured a diverse array of instrumentalists and instrumentation. A dozen classically trained musicians — all dressed in black and wearing black masks — shared the stage with these hard rockers, playing instruments common (cellos, trombones), uncommon (saws, cimbassos) and rare (the Benjamin Franklin-invented glass harmonica). Toward the end of the taping, six Japanese taiko drummers were summoned to strengthen the band's rendition of "Throw Me Away."
Additionally, Korn were joined by touring guitarist Rob Patterson (who donned a white half-mask), backup vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Kalen Chase (wearing a rabbit mask), keyboardist Zac Baird (who wore a horse mask) and percussionist Michael Jochum (sporting a pig mask). Later, there'd be two special guests joining Korn for this acoustic set — but, as one audience member wondered aloud when the band took their places, "Where's [drummer] David [Silveria]?"
"He's taking a little break," Fieldy responded. "He's sick." And nothing more was said of the drummer's absence. But a statement issued Wednesday (December 13) by the band's publicist stated that "it's been decided that Silveria will be taking a temporary hiatus from Korn," and quoted the drummer as saying, "I just need a break for right now."
Korn started off the night with "Thoughtless," from 2002's Untouchables. A bleak tune, you could tell Davis had to restrain himself like he never had before — his eyes closed, he bopped around in his chair wildly, faintly singing the song's lyrics into his microphone, his thin dreads whipping through the air around his head. The fans in the audience were similarly restrained, headbanging in their seats as though in slow motion, as they mouthed his words back at him. Fieldy, straddling his chair, held his acoustic bass upright with the body of the instrument resting between his legs, as he normally would during a plugged-in set. Munky, who you could tell just didn't feel right sitting down during the entire taping, strummed his guitar like a virtuoso, making each note sound as unique as the performance itself.
"This is pretty incredible," Davis reflected, following a healthy round of applause. Just then, Davis was pulled offstage, leaving the audience, the band and the cameras idle, wondering what had happened — no explanation was ever offered. With time to kill, Fieldy wanted to keep playing. He walked over to Munky, whispered into the guitarist's ear, and they both nodded in agreement. Next, the band launched into "Here To Stay," a track Korn had wanted to give the acoustic treatment but ended up axing from the set list during rehearsals. With Davis busy, Fieldy turned to the fist-pumping crowd to supply the vocals.
"I saw you guys," a grinning Davis told them upon his return, taking a sip of tea from his "Apprentice" mug bearing the words "You're fired." "That was awesome."
Next came "Blind," "the song that started everything for us all, put heavy music back on the radio and created a new genre of metal," Davis explained. He added that he'd originally written the song with his first band, Sexart, and when that band split, he joined Korn and took it with him — only to be sued by two of his former bandmates over the hit single years later. "We decided to do it really differently for you guys," Davis continued — and he wasn't kidding. The band's unplugged version was Latin-tinged and included a fast-paced Flamenco-esque solo, compliments of Munky, that left the audience astounded. "Pretty trippy, huh?" Davis asked afterward, to which the crowd responded with a hellacious "Yeah!"
In between songs, Fieldy, Munky and Patterson couldn't not play, performing abrupt and impromptu covers of Metallica's "Master of Puppets," the Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut," Ozzy Osbourne's "No More Tears" and even the background music from the underground levels of "Super Mario Bros." Following a spine-chilling rendition of "Hollow Life," Korn welcomed Evanescence frontwoman Amy Lee onto the stage for a haunting version of "Freak on a Leash" that had Davis and Lee exchanging verses back and forth. Lee's delicate, golden voice was the perfect complement to Davis' brooding delivery.
At the song's conclusion, Lee sprung from her chair and informed the audience that her dress had become stuck on a nail protruding from a leg on Davis' chair. "Don't cry to me," blurted a member of the audience (a line from Evanescence's latest single, "Call Me When You're Sober"), which had the whole room laughing.
The heavy glass harmonica was hoisted onto the stage for "Falling Away From Me," which began with an arresting orchestra of bells. The instrument remained onstage for Korn's magnificent, piano-based cover of Radiohead's "Creep," which Davis said was a song "that spoke to me when it came out" and which he dedicated to "anyone who has ever been picked on or made to feel inadequate."
Korn weren't perfect during the taping and did have to redo several songs in their set, but Fieldy said that was all part of their plan. "They told us to mess up on purpose, for bloopers and outtakes," he joked. After "Love Song," from 2005's See You on the Other Side, Korn tackled a horn-heavy "Got the Life," followed by a jazzy version of "Twisted Transistor."
Clearly, the highlight of the evening — for both Davis and his audience — was the arrival of Robert Smith and the rest of his band, the Cure (guitarist Porl Thompson, bassist Simon Gallup and drummer Jason Cooper), for an acoustic mash-up that blended Korn's "Make Me Bad" with the Cure's "In Between Days."
"You never thought you'd see that sh--, did you?" Davis asked the audience, pointing at Smith. "This is the band that got me through high school. They were the soundtrack of my life then. So to be onstage with these legends ... I just never thought in my wildest dreams this moment would happen."
The collaboration was perfect — the two songs woven into one gloomy masterpiece. "I feel the reason as it's leaving me, no, not again," sang Davis, followed immediately by Smith's wispy response: "Make me bad." Then, it was Smith's turn, as he floated through the first two verses of "In Between Days" and shared the microphone with Davis on the chorus: "Come back, come back/ Don't walk away/ Come back, come back/ Come back today/ Come back, come back/ Why can't you see?/ Come back, come back/ Come back to me."
The song's end was met with a standing ovation, and underneath the shy Smith's long black hair, one could see a smile come across his rosy red lips. Davis, still awestruck, took a deep breath before saying, "That was some crazy sh--."
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