"MTV Unplugged" probably couldn't have come at a better time for Soul Asylum.
For starters, the episode with the until then loud and fast Minnesota band aired on June 2, 1993, just one day after the release of its mellowed-out megahit single "Runaway Train."
The airing also came shortly after Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Pearl Jam lent legitimacy to the as-live-as-it-gets MTV series with their appearances. Nirvana's landmark "Unplugged" taping would come later that year.
Even better in Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner's mind, though, was the fact that his group had already unknowingly prepared for the taping.
"'Grave Dancers Union' was the first record where we demoed every song on acoustic guitars," the singer/guitarist said, referring to that year's breakthrough multi-platinum album by his band.
"We really worked hard on those demos. So by the time the 'Unplugged' show came around, it was like, 'Oh, yeah, we can do this!'"
Now, Pirner is going to try to do it again.
He and the modern lineup of the band he has been leading for more than 40 years will revisit that 1993 "Unplugged" taping on Thursday at the State Theatre. They will be joined by a string section, choir and the veteran New Orleans keyboardist who played on the original show, Ivan Neville.
The concert is timed to the 30th anniversary of the taping — April 21, 1993 — and to a first-ever "Unplugged" release on vinyl that arrives Saturday for Record Store Day.
As proud as he is to revisit the MTV gig, Pirner said Thursday's concert is also about showcasing the current lineup of Soul Asylum and some of the songs he has written since his band's commercial heyday.
"I'd call this a sequel, not a re-enactment," he said. "On one hand, doing ['Unplugged'] was a good experience, and I'm happy to revisit it. But I personally wouldn't be very excited about 're-enacting' it.
"There's been 30 years of songwriting in the band since that show, so I'm excited to have the chance to play some of the newer material in the same fashion as we did in 1993."
Pirner, 58, has been testing that theory in recent months. He and current Soul Asylum guitarist Ryan Smith have been on tour as an acoustic duo.
Also known locally as the frontman of the Melismatics, Smith said the duo concerts "are entirely different beasts" from the grander performance planned for the State, but they do make the same case for Pirner's songwriting talent.
"Those songs translate really well to be played without the loud and aggressive model, as great as that can be, too," Smith said. "They have good harmonies, smart lyrics and are just well written. They're not just riff-rock."
After more than a decade of cranking out riffs in dingy rock clubs across America, Pirner faced a hearing-loss scare in 1992 and 1993 during the making of "Grave Dancers Union." That led to the acoustic demos as well as the more introspective, vulnerable tone of "Runaway Train."
Looking back, Pirner said, "It was such a unique time in the music industry where bands like us who'd been grinding it out punk-rock style in clubs for years were suddenly getting through to the mainstream — the whole 'alternative nation' thing. The 'Unplugged' series sort of reflected that, and I think it was a good fit for us."
He doesn't remember much about the actual taping, though: "We had so much going on at that time, so many different, odd things we were doing — it sort of just seemed like another thing. A positive thing, though."
He does remember that 10,000 Maniacs — who released their "Unplugged" special as a popular live album later that year — shared the stage/audience with Soul Asylum for a double-header taping. Of course, Pirner also remembers the special guest his band brought out for its set.
"I think she liked the idea of being paired up with the rough-and-tumble rock band that night," Pirner said of Lulu, the 1960s-era British pop singer, who (very unexpectedly) sang her movie theme hit "To Sir With Love" that night with Soul Asylum.
"She had a new record coming out, so she was already talking to producers at MTV about her own thing. I'd always loved that song, so I was happy to do it. It turned out really cool, I think, and was one of many pleasant surprises from that whole period."
Coolest of all, Pirner said, was, "the thrill of getting to hear my songs played with strings for the first time. I think any songwriter would get a kick out of that. Not to mention, having Ivan Neville play on them, too."
A part-time New Orleans resident during much of the late '90s and '00s, Pirner first got to know the Neville Brothers scion as a member of Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos (with whom Soul Asylum toured). He said he was happy to hear Neville "turned way up in the mix" in the remastered version of the "Unplugged" set.
Another bonus with the new vinyl edition of the concert: Four songs not heard in the TV episode are featured on it, including the band's classic cover of Victoria Williams' "Summer of Drugs" and early Soul Asylum nuggets "Stranger" and "Never Really Been." That's in addition to the other singles from 1993, "Black Gold" and "Somebody to Shove" — which were actually better-known songs at the time than "Runaway Train," which opened the show.
One bittersweet element, though, is the fact that none of Pirner's bandmates from the original "Unplugged" session will be on hand to celebrate the album's release at the State Theatre.
Bassist Karl Mueller died of cancer in 2005. Drummer Grant Young split from the band not long after the taping (ex-Prince rhythm keeper Michael Bland has filled that role since 2005).
As for guitarist and co-vocalist Dan Murphy — who quit in 2013 and only recently started performing again in a new band, the Scarlet Goodbye — Pirner said a reunion in this case "never even crossed my mind."
"His time in the band has passed. It's not even an issue for me."
(Murphy also has said separately he's not interested in rejoining his old band.)
The "Unplugged" record may not be the only album to be released by Soul Asylum in 2023. Pirner said he and the band are "about 30 songs into" the writing of a new studio album and are talking to some rather well known prospective producers to record it for them.
"We've had a great relationship with John Fields," Pirner said of the Minneapolis-based producer of recent Soul Asylum albums, "but we're looking to shake things up a bit with this next one, and I think we have a strong batch of songs to do it with."
As that 1993 TV gig showed, the band clearly has had some success mixing things up in the past.
Soul Asylum 'Unplugged'
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.
Where: State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $43-$63, ticketmaster.com.
Record Store Day: Dave Pirner will DJ to tout the new live LP at the Electric Fetus 4 p.m. Sat., 2000 4th Av. S., Mpls.