Music review: Nirvana, Live at Reading

Posted: November 5, 2009 in Album Reviews


Nirvana’s most legendary live performance has finally seen the light of day with this week’s release of Live at Reading, both on DVD and CD.
I bought the CD Tuesday, temporarily delaying buying Weezer’s new disc in the process. After all, I’m a much bigger Nirvana fan than Weezer fan but that’s neither here nor there.
Nirvana already had two live albums, both released in the years immediately following Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The MTV Unplugged album came out a few months after he died and it was brilliant, showing the band was equally adept at toning things down to highlight the beauty of Cobain’s melodies as it was at completely tearing things up on stage. The second live disc, On the Muddy Banks of the Wishkaharrived a few years later, and although it was a fine live performance, it was a bit uneven as the songs were culled from several concerts spanning five years.
So now we finally get a full concert on disc, and it’s from their most bootlegged performance. Nirvana headlined the Reading Festival in England on August 30, 1992. In the days leading up to the show, rumors were swirling about the health of Cobain. There were stories of drug abuse and rumors the show wouldn’t go on.
Just as the show was ready to begin, Cobain was escorted onstage in a wheelchair, wearing a hospital gown and a long blond wig. He was helped to his feet and arrived at the microphone to utter a few lines from Bette Midler’s “The Rose” before collapsing to the ground. Bassist Krist Noveselic played along, telling the crowd “he’ll be alright, with the love of his family and friends” or something of that nature. It was all a joke, as Cobain rose to his feet and led the band into a ferocious version of “Breed” off their benchmark Nevermind, released the previous fall.
Although it was less than a year since that release, Nirvana were now full-fledged superstars, owning both sides of the Atlantic. They played 11 of the 12 songs off Nevermind, including an awesome version of “Lithium” where the crowd sings along with every word, much to the delight of the band. Drummer Dave Grohl would later call this a true highlight of the band’s career. The show offered plenty of highlights, including a killer version of “Aneurysm” off the yet-to-be released B-sides collection Incesticide, which came out that December. How “Aneurysm” was relegated to B-side status, I’ll never know, as it’s probably my favorite Nirvana tune. Other highlights include a version of “Sliver” (also off Incesticide), the tune written about Cobain’s days as a kid at his grandma’s house. Cobain laughs during the beginning of the song and then keeps shuffling his voice from one extreme to the other, almost as if he can’t decide what octave to sing it in. The best cuts from Nirvana’s debut album “Bleach” found their way on the set – “School,” “About a Girl”, “Negative Creep” and “Blew” as did a kick-ass version of “Spank Thru,” one of Cobain’s earliest tunes. Three songs from the yet-to-be released In Utero (which didn’t come out until fall of ’93) were performed, including a raging version of “Tourette’s.” There’s also a lovely take of “All Apologies,” then still in its skeletal form. Only one verse is done (with slightly different lyrics). That verse is repeated a few times and the “all and all is all we are” ending has been written, but it’s a wonderful version and a nice sneak-peak of a brilliant songwriter testing out his unfinished masterpiece on the road. The crowd loved it and so will you. The version of “Dumb” is the best I’ve heard the song sound, as I’ve never been a huge fan of that particular song for some reason. Here, it sounds awesome and fresh, and it benefits from not having the strings that were put on it for the album version. The band played two encores, dusting off a pair of punk covers “The Money Will Roll Right In: by Fang and “D7″ by the Wipers. Since I’d never heard either original, they truly sound like lost Nirvana tunes (a studio of D7 is included on the band’s excellent 2004 box set With the Lights Out”. The show ends with “Territorial Pissings” and as the song ends, Cobain plays “The Star Spangled Banner” Hendrix style as the band destroys their instruments on stage. Great stuff.
Each time I listen to Nirvana, thoughts of what might have been always come to the surface. What would the band’s next move been after the dire “In Utero?” The unplugged performances and demos from early 1994 like “Do Re Mi” show Cobain experimenting with his softer, Beatlesque melodic side. Cobain had just scratched the surface of his songwriting genius, it’s a shame drug abuse and depression overcame him at an early age. Still, in a very short period of time, the band left an indelible mark on rock, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.
“Live at Reading” rating: *****
“Live at Reading” track list: 1. Breed; 2. Drain You; 3. Aneurysm; 4. School; 5. Sliver; 6. In Bloom; 7. Come As You Are; 8. Lithium; 9. About a Girl; 10. Tourette’s; 11. Polly; 12. Lounge Act; 13. Smells Like Teen Spirit; 14. On a Plain; 15. Negative Creep; 16. Been a Son; 17. All Apologies; 18. Blew; 19. Dumb; 20. Stay Away; 21. Spank Thru; 22. The Money Will Roll Right In; 23. D-7; 24.Territorial Pissings.

Other Nirvana albums
Bleach (1989) ***
Nevermind (1991) *****
Incesticide (1992) ****
In Utero (1993) *****
Unplugged in New York (1994) *****
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996) ****
With the Lights Out (2004) **** 1/2


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