Discovering Nirvana's lost treasures
Two of the band's seminal concerts are captured in new releases this week. It's enough to make a critic regret, again, a long-ago mistake.
The year was 1994 and my cousin had extra tickets to both of Nirvana’s Seattle Center Coliseum concerts. For some unknown reason my 15-year-old self turned down the offer to tag along both nights. Almost 16 years later I’m still kicking myself for that decision, and while I don’t remember exactly why I declined free tickets to see the band that defined my generation, I do remember what I told my cousin.
“I’ll see them next time they are in town.”
Unfortunately, as we all know, there was no next time for Nirvana. The band’s two Seattle Center Coliseum shows were its last U.S. concerts before the day Generation X’s music died. Fortunately for 31-year-old me and anyone else who is still mad at their teenage self for missing Nirvana back in the day, two excellent live recordings hit shelves this week. On Tuesday Sub Pop released a remastered version of the band’s debut Bleach complete with a recording of a 1990 Nirvana concert. That same day Universal Music released Nirvana Live at Reading, the band’s legendary 1992 Reading Festival headlining set, on DVD and CD.
The Bleach reissue is in celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary and it sounds as dark and gruff as it did when it first showed up in record store bins in 1989. Remastered from the original tapes by grunge guru Jack Endino (the record’s original producer), it stands as an excellent precursor to what was to come. “Floyd the Barber” is still the most menacing song written about Mayberry. “Negative Creep” is as crunchy and dense as it’s always been. And “About A Girl” is still Nirvana’s finest pop moment.
Endino didn’t really mess with much during the remastering process, which speaks to the high quality of the original. Bleach is such a good record there isn’t much need to tweak or improve a thing and Endino seemed to know that. But you don’t buy this reissue for the remastering. Any self-respecting Nirvana fan worth his weight in Penny Royal Tea already owns Bleach. You buy this reissue for the 12 songs tacked onto the end of the remaster.
The Feb. 4, 1990, concert at the Pine Street Theatre in Portland, which also was mastered by Endino, showcases a band on the rise. The set list is mostly all Bleach material including a few outtakes (“Dive,” The Vaseline’s “Molly’s Lips,” and “Been A Son”) that would later show up on the highly underrated Incesticide. The fabled “Sappy,” one of the band’s earliest songs, is a highlight as is set closer “Blew,” during which you get to hear Kurt Cobain smash a guitar.
Throughout the set Cobain’s raspy voice, which is almost as powerful an instrument as his southpaw guitar solos, is in full bloom. Krist Novoselic’s bass lines are crisp and clear, especially on “Been A Son.” Chad Channing, who had yet to be replaced by Dave Grohl, displays some furious chops behind the skins. In fact, getting a chance to listen to Channing’s drumming makes the reissue worth the purchase price for any fan. This show might not have been Nirvana at the peak of its powers but it definitely offers massive foreshadowing of what was to come.
There are very few recordings of full Nirvana concerts outside of the bootleg market, even fewer with this lineup. That’s why this reissue is such a treat and an essential part of the Nirvana catalog. It not only brings Bleach back into the Nirvana discussion, it also does a good job of capturing the band’s live shows at the time. Combine that with the 52-page booklet of rare band photos (including images of the band’s Sub Pop contract) and the remastered Bleach is as much a treasure trove of Nirvana material as 2004’s With The Lights Out boxed set.
While the Pine Street Theatre gig lets you listen to a band on the rise, Nirvana Live at Reading is that same band at the pinnacle of its career. The show is widely accepted as Nirvana’s best concert and after viewing the Nirvana Live at Reading DVD it’s tough to imagine the band could have done much better than it did that night. From its opening moments when music journalist Everett True rolls Cobain onstage in a wheelchair and Cobain starts to sing Bette Middler’s “The Rose” to the closing “Star Spangled Banner” riffs at the end of “Territorial Pissings,” the concert is full-on musical assault.
Just like Nirvana itself, the band’s 25-song Reading Festival set was a no-frills affair. Aside from the occasional use of strobe lighting and a friend of the band who occasionally danced on stage (Tony Hodgkinson), there wasn’t much production put into the concert, allowing the performance to speak for itself. The band performs almost all of Nevermind during the concert (“Something In The Way” is the lone song left out of the set) and several choice cuts from Bleach. There are also a few In Utero tracks performed and a couple of covers including The Wipers’ “D-7.”
Along the no-frills lines, there is minimal stage banter and Cobain barely talks to the crowd but he does introduce “All Apologies” by asking the crowd to shout “We love you Courtney” to his wife. This was due to the way the band was being treated in the press at the time. It’s one of the only glimpses the concert gives into Cobain’s personality. We get another peek during “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He intros the song by playing Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” (Cobain openly admitting to lifting the song’s riff for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) while Novoselic handles vocals. It’s a brief look at Kurt’s playful side and after the quick prank he flashes a half-smile to Novoselic, seemingly happy that they pulled it off.
The video quality is fantastic for something shot 17 years ago. Keeping with the no-frills theme, there are no extras on the disc. The lone “extra,” if it can be considered one, comes after the credits roll and Cobain is shown backstage signing autographs. Considering two-thirds of the band is still alive, it would have been nice to hear Novoselic or Grohl talk about the show. It also would have been nice to have a bit more backstory on the concert and an explanation of why Cobain was wheeled onstage in a wheelchair to put things in context. (For those who don’t know, it was Kurt’s way of poking fun at rumors he had overdosed on drugs). Unfortunately that isn’t made clear, but one thing definitely was made clear to me after watching Live at Reading and listening to the Bleach reissue.