In the late 1980s, both Tesla and Cinderella cranked out brassy hard rock tinged with blues. But whereas the members of Cinderella draped themselves in the most ridiculous and clichéd 1980s accessories — poodlelike manes, frilly shirts, multicolored spandex unitards, etc. — Tesla stuck with jeans and T-shirts. They came across more like a blue-collar 1970s rock band than a pompous 1980s rock band.
And rather than relocate in search of a record deal to the heavy metal hotbed that was Los Angeles, Tesla opted to remain in decidedly less glamorous Sacramento, California, the bandmembers’ hometown, and let the music industry come to them.
As a result, Tesla wasn’t tainted with the “hair metal” tag and its related implications of cheesy excess. The band’s 1986 debut for Geffen Records, “Mechanical Resonance,” and the follow-up, 1989’s “The Great Radio Controversy,” still stand as two of the era’s sturdiest collections of melodic, guitar-based hard rock.
Standout singles ranged from the ominous slide guitar of “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)” to the acoustic/electric hybrid “Little Suzi” to the unconventional power ballads “Love Song” and “What You Give” to the swaggering “Modern Day Cowboy,” an apparent commentary on Ronald Reagan and the Cold War.
All of it was stamped with brash, churning riffs and vocalist Jeff Keith’s distinctive rasp, which fell somewhere between Cinderella’s Tom Keifer and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.
The current Tesla lineup still features four of the five members from the band’s heyday: Keith, guitarist Frank Hannon, bassist Brian Wheat and drummer Troy Luccketta. Dave Rude has replaced original guitarist Tommy Skeoch, who was in and out of the band for a number of years as he dealt with substance abuse issues.
Tesla continues to tour and make new music via its own indie label. On Aug. 26, they’ll release “Mechanical Resonance Live,” a live recreation of the band’s debut, pegged to its 30th anniversary.
A summerlong tour opening for Def Leppard and REO Speedwagon stops at the Smoothie King Center at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are still available, priced at $26.75 to $96.75 plus service charges.
Tesla’s association with pop-metal hitmakers Def Leppard goes back decades. The two bands shared a manager, and toured together, in the late 1980s. The 1991 Tesla track “Song & Emotion” was written in memory of Def Leppard’s recently deceased founding guitarist, Steve Clark.
More recently, Tesla joined Def Leppard and Styx on the road last summer. Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen wrote and produced “Save That Goodness,” the only new song on “Mechanical Resonance Live.” He’s also producing and co-writing Tesla’s ninth full-length recording, due next year.
Named for eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla — whose career also inspired the band’s early album titles — Tesla was out in front of several trends in popular music.
The band’s 1990 live acoustic album “Five Man Acoustical Jam” helped usher in the “MTV Unplugged” era. It yielded Tesla’s hit cover of the Five Man Electrical Band’s hippie-ish 1971 protest song “Signs.”
The album also showed Tesla’s broad range and earthy roots via covers of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin,” the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s country-tinged “Lodi.”
During U2’s acclaimed Elevation Tour in 2001, Bono and his bandmates would strut onstage with the house lights still up, strap on their instruments and start to play. The arena dramatically went dark midway through the first song.
Tesla used the same trick nearly a decade earlier to even greater effect, given its members’ relative anonymity. When they first ambled onto arena stages, plugged in and started riffing, many folks initially mistook them for especially shaggy roadies conducting a final, very loud, sound check.
That anonymity, as compared to more cartoonish contemporaries such as Motley Crue’s Vince Neil and Van Halen’s David Lee Roth, explains, in part, why Tesla didn’t quite break into rock’s upper echelon.
But it also explains why Tesla endures as one of the ’80s most credible hard rock bands, one that is still able to don the same stage attire and play the same songs as 30 years ago without looking foolish.
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