Nirvana: Live At Reading
[Four and a half stars]
On 31 August, 1992, Nirvana headlined the Reading Festival in the UK. A few days before the Reading show, rumours had begun to circulate about frontman Kurt Cobain’s heroin addiction and about him being hospitalised after an overdose. His wife Courtney Love ”“ who’s given birth to their daughter Frances Bean just 12 days before the show ”“ had been quoted in Vanity Fair as admitting to heroin abuse while pregnant. With Cobain now loudly declaring his disenchantment with fame and facing a shitstorm of controversy, most of the 60,000 people who’d come to the Reading Festival were convinced the band was going to blow its headline set. That it didn’t happen is part of the reason this epic concert has gone down as one of the most bootlegged performances ever.
In this first official release of that 1992 concert, gorgeously remastered in 5.1 surround sound, some of the hyperbole surrounding the band, which often overwhelmed their music, is justified. Take for instance Cobain’s entrance on stage. Wheeled in on a wheelchair and wearing a blonde wig and a hostpital smock (“With the support of his friends and family, he’s gonna make it,” bassist Krist Novoselic tells the crowd), Cobain lurches unsteadily to his feet, sings two lines of Bette Midler’s ”˜The Rose’ and feigns a collapse. When he gets back on his feet, it’s all the crowd can do to not wet their collective pants in excitement. Reaching for his guitar, Cobain launches into a series of nonsense riffs couched in feedback when suddenly the noise segues into ”˜Breed’”¦ and Nirvana have already secured their place in legend.
In the next hour and a half, the band blaze through most of Nevermind, Bleach and preview three new songs from their upcoming record In Utero on stage devoid of even the most basic embellishments ”“ save for their face-painted, crazy-dancing friend Tony ”“ but you can’t tear your eyes away from the power-trio on stage. Novoselic plays the friendly goof, telling schmaltzy jokes and entertaining the crowd, Dave Grohl assaults the drumkit like a man possessed but Cobain deadpans his way through most of the set almost indifferently while letting the music do the talking. And how it talks! ”˜Drain You,’ ”˜Aneurysm,’ ”˜School,’ ”˜In Bloom,’ ”˜Lithium,’ ”˜Polly’ ”˜Come As You Are,’ ”˜Sliver’ come in tightly bound packages of explosive intentsity, most of them drowned in guitar fuzz and noise jams until Cobain reaches into the chaos and plucks out a melody to turn into a song. The band’s set swings between moments of shocking punk (”˜Aneurysm’), power pop (”˜About A Girl’) and gut-busting grunge (”˜Negative Creep’). By the time the set swings around to ”˜Smells Like Teen Spirit’ the crowd is primed. Cobain’s dislike for this song, which officially launched the band, is well known and you’re expecting a blasÃ© rendition of it. But as the band dig into it, the song is unleashed with such visceral ferocity, it feels like the first time it’s ever been played. Cobain does nothing but stand in one place and play but in your head you’re seeing him lurch across the stage like a demoniacal shaman bathed in strobe lights, his music vicious, his absorption complete.
The one and only moment where Cobain connects with the crowd is when he leads them into 60,000-strong love chant for his wife. “This song is dedicated to my 12-day old daughter and my wife,” he announces out of the blue. “There’s been some pretty extreme things written about us, especially my wife, and she thinks everybody hates her now. I want you to give her a message and say Courtney, we love you.” And when they do, Cobain breaks into a vulnerable 12-year-old boy smile before launching into ”˜All Apologies’; it’s his only acknowledgement of the audience. Wrapping up the rest of the set with covers of Fang’s ”˜The Money Will Roll Right In’ and Wipers’ ”˜D-7,’ the band close the show with the noisiest, fuzziest, most chaotic rendition of ”˜Territorial Pissings’ before proceeding to systematically destroy the stage. In the last sequence, Cobain drags his blood-spattered guitar ”“ still wired, still buzzing ”“ all the way across the stage and down to the pit, eventually handing it to the audience to destroy and you’re finally seeing Nirvana the way they were meant to be: Not couched in candlelight and acoustic numbers like at the MTV Unplugged but live, vital, contemptuous even, in their full elemental glory.