Priceless Advice: Exploring The Nirvana Live Experience

Priceless Advice: Exploring The Nirvana Live Experience

A look back at those stunning in-concert documents...

25 years on from Kurt Cobain’s death Nirvana’s legacy lives on in numerous ways but one of the ways it has been most potent and enduring has been in the form of the live album.

Nirvana were arguably the most thrilling and incendiary live show around with gigs full of fire and fury, tender introspection and all the playful quirky idiosyncrasies that were as a much a part of Kurt’s psyche as wallowing in despair.

There have been live records that document defining moments and periods in the band’s career and now, yet another one, is about to get it’s first release on record with their legendary 1991 ‘Live At The Paramount’ show.

Each Nirvana live album does something different and hits you in different ways so we thought we’d take a little look in detail at how the Nirvana live experience plays out on record.

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'Live At The Paramount' (1991)

Recorded just over a month after the release of ‘Nevermind’ on October 31st 1991 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, this show finds Nirvana on the cusp of becoming the biggest and most important band in the world. The songs from ‘Nevermind’ are shot through with the passion and of a live force who know that they are about to be propelled into the stratosphere.

There’s a freedom and looseness to the performance recorded long before the burdens of fame and pressure began to eat away. The crowd and band feed off each other, for example, on the video version you can see carefree kids slam dancing merrily on stage to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Kurt’s voice is ragged and torn but still lithe and youthful while the rhythm section of Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic are having the time of their lives.

All the hits from ‘Nevermind’ are present but it’s the older ‘Bleach’ era songs like ‘School’ and ‘Negative Creep’ that really stand out as they’re infused with a newfound aggression and vitality. The show ends with a classic Nirvana trope and perhaps the best gear destroying outro of their career in ‘Endless, Nameless’.

After this show things would never quite be the same again.

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'Live At Reading' (1992)

For years this was THE Nirvana bootleg to own. Finally given it’s on release in 2009, ‘Live at Reading’ is Nirvana at their absolute peak, smack bang in the middle of their imperial phase. What the recorded album gains in a relentless rush through of tour hardened aggression, covers of Kurt faves and some proto new songs it loses in excising some of the stage interactions and clowning that gives the show it’s context.

From Kurt being wheeled out in hospital gown and wheelchair by journalist Everett True to imploring the crowd to shout ‘We Love You Courtney’ to playfully goofing off by playing a snippet of classic rock albatross ‘More Than A Feeling’ before their own monolithic ‘Teen Spirit’, Reading is about more than just the music.

Despite reaching headline status, Nirvana made no concessions to the ‘show’. The songs are pummelled through and the hits dispensed with fairly briskly and quickly before the set leans into covers like Fang’s ‘The Money Will Roll Right In’ and the cover of ‘D-Z’ by Kurt heroes The Wipers.

We’re also treated to work in progress of versions of ‘In Utero’ songs ‘Dumb’ All Apologies’ and ‘Tourettes’. The latter sounds like it will rip Kurt’s larynx from his throat. For anyone looking to get into Nirvana for the first time this legendary live set is a good place to start.

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'MTV Unplugged In New York' (1994)

Here’s when things start to get a little bit dark. Nirvana were a much changed band by the time we got to late 1993. Fame had taken its toll and a weary Kurt, dulled by intense physical and emotional pain and, after releasing the harrowing ‘In Utero’, had a desire to pare back some of the punk rock aggression in favour of something more reflective and tender.

When the band were invited to perform on MTV’s Unplugged show he was given the opportunity to do just that. In light of his suicide just five months following this performance, the unplugged show has the reputation of a wake. The last gasp of an iconic artist who knew his days were numbered.

While that might not be strictly true, there is a certainly a funereal atmosphere to the performance. Kurt reportedly informed the MTV producers he wanted the stage set with its muted flowers and candles to look like a funeral. Seemingly out of their comfort zone, the band responded by delivering one of the greatest and most unique performances of their career.

Kurt and the band went all in and re-arranged some of their old songs beautifully while burnishing the set with some carefully chosen covers of by some of Kurt’s all time favourites. In some ways the set acts as an epitaph to the musical legacy of Kurt Cobain and the outsiders he championed.

Two of them even appear alongside the band as Curt and Cris Kirkwood of 80s SST hardcore outliers Meat Puppets accompany Nirvana on covers of the Puppets ‘Plateau’, ‘Lake Of Fire’ and ‘Oh Me’. Indeed, Unplugged is a record famous for it’s covers which also include an electrified version of Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ as well as long-time live favourite, Vaseline’s ‘Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam’. 

There is one cover that stands out above everything else though. One moment that encapsulates this period as the band and Kurt neared the end. The cover of legendary Bluesman Leadbelly’s version of the traditional folk song ‘In The Pines’, recorded here as ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ is almost too torturously painful to listen to but you can’t help but be frozen by it. Full of deep sorrow by the time Kurt gets to the piercing scream of the last note you can feel all of his pain and anguish before he pauses to take one last breath and lets the song play out. It’s a truly stunning moment.

In the wake of Kurt’s death ‘Unplugged..’ due to it’s mournful ambience became something of a comfort blanket to grieving fans and it rightfully became the first posthumous Nirvana release.

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'From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah' (1996)

With Kurt now gone and the band consigned to history, there began a run of different repackaged and re-released records to keep up with demand for Nirvana product. The band’s legacy has never really diminished at any point and their legendary status is untouched, as such people always want to hear something, anything by them.

The live compilation ‘From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah’, named after the Wishkah river in Kurt’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, was the first to retrospectively document the band’s career. The record compiles live performances between 1989-1994 and was put together by Grohl and Novoselic and features liner notes by the bassist.

It’s a somewhat fractured, scattered experience running through different eras but is a powerful reminder of just what a formidable live band they were. The album is also notable for reminding you that there was actually life after the Unplugged show in November 1993 with a number of versions taken from the band’s final tours in late 1993 and early 1994, including a riotous ‘Scentless Apprentice’, recorded for MTV’s Live And Loud, which should arguably be released in its own right, and ‘Milk It’ from January 1994.

The set also contains the unequivocally definitive version of ‘Aneurysm’ perhaps the band’s greatest song. If you want the full Nirvana live experience warts and all from start to finish ‘Wishkah’ does a sterling job.

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'Live At The Paramount' is out now on vinyl.

Words: Martyn Young // @martynmyoung

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