Nirvana - Live at Reading
Where to begin with this one? For those in the crowd it must have been total mayhem from start to finish but watching it now it is hard to view it as anything other than a historical document. Sure they rock like muthafuckers but how do you enjoy the performance without that tragic event creeping to the front of your mind? How can you enjoy the spectacle knowing what gruesome, irreversible act was going to happen behind closed doors just a couple of years later? Of course those in the crowd had no idea that Dave Grohl would go on to form the Foo Fighters but we know and we can’t forget.
This show is, as you well know, legendary and sometimes legends are best left in the memory. People that were there have recounted Kurt’s stage entrance, bewigged, dressed in hospital nightclothes and confined to a wheelchair and, wow, it sounded monumental. On screen, nearly 20 years on, it just all falls a bit flat and, yeah, knowing that he would go on to blow his brains out does take the shine off of that little jape. Get past the bullshit though and the performance is largely stunning.
What really comes across is the total naivety of the production; there’s no stage set, no screens, no lighting to speak of, just a moocher called Tony who lurches about the stage like Jay and Silent Bob meets Bez. The band is swamped by the enormity of the festival stage and it just underlines the madness of their meteoric rise to stardom, this was music made for sweaty clubs and there was just no time to adapt to the big time. It wouldn’t happen these days, everything is too corporate, too knowing to allow a hint of weakness and you certainly wouldn’t get a ten minute coda of the band trashing the stage and equipment. Health and safety forms would have to be completed and significant overrun fines would prohibit it, plus the pre programmed lighting rig would probably blow a circuit.
Musically it is catastrophically flawed, Kurt’s voice is, at times, in a parallel universe while his guitar drifts in and out of tune like an ebbing tide. That’s the beauty of the performance though, as it is the raw, jagged edges which make it an essential purchase which will stand repeat viewings. For thse that have heard the bootlegs, the 5.1 sound will come as a revelation, the crunch and kick of ‘About a Girl’ will floor you. Interestingly, the most intense and engaging performances of the set are the glimpses of the last act to come, the anti-pop reaction against their new found fame found in ‘Tourette’s’ and ‘All Apologies’, the latter prefaced by a cringeworthy We Love You Courtney chant from the crowd. Hindsight is a wonderful thing isn’t it.
The set peaks in the middle with the Nevermind hits and tails off with a perverse encore featuring obscure covers of songs by Fang and The Wipers before the band decimate the stage and equipment with military precision. The denials that this was a farewell performance start to look pretty thin at this stage as you sense their relief and glee at ensuring the tools of their trade mangled and wrecked beyond hope or repair. The disc ends with a cringeworthy, skin crawling exchange between a backstage ligger, his young son and Cobain. From beginning to end this is an uneasy, uncomfortable experience but you can’t help but watch it. As the Manics, also on the same Reading bill, once said...Who’s responsible? You fucking are.