Review: Nirvana's 'Live At Reading': The Best Live Rock Record Ever? Nirvana's Bleach (reissued this month) didn't make much of a splash when it was released in 1989. But with hindsight, the album shows a band clearly hurtling toward greatness. A mere two years later, Nirvana headlined England's Reading Festival; by then, the greatness was obvious.


Music Reviews

The Best Live Rock Record Ever?

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It was 15 years ago that Kurt Cobain took his own life, but this month his music lives on with two Nirvana releases. There's a reissue of the band's album "Bleach" and a DVD of a performance at England's Reading Festival in 1992. Our critic Will Hermes is especially taken with the DVD.

(Soundbite of music)

WILL HERMES: The first time I saw Nirvana at the club First Avenue in Minneapolis, I didn't really get it - at first. Then they played the song "About a Girl," which sounded like something off "Meet the Beatles," only bent out of shape by punk metal noise and a much darker take on gender relations than the young Lennon or McCartney had.

(Soundbite of song, "About a Girl")

Mr. KURT COBAIN (Nirvana): (Singing) I need an easy friend, I do with an ear to lend, I do think you fit this shoe, I do but you have a clue...

HERMES: This live version is from 1990 and it turns up on the reissue of Nirvana's "Bleach," which didn't make much of a splash at the time, but with hindsight, shows a band clearly hurtling towards greatness. A mere two years later, Nirvana headlined England's Reading Festival. By then, the greatness was obvious.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm So Happy")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) I'm so happy 'cause today I found my friends. They're in my head. I'm so ugly, that's okay 'cause so are you. Broke our mirrors, Sunday morning is every day for all I care. I'm not scared. Light my candles, in a daze 'cause I've found God. Yeah...

HERMES: When Cobain took the stage on August 30th, 1992, costumed in a hospital gown, his daughter Frances Bean had just been born a week prior, and he and his wife Courtney Love were in the midst of a media firestorm around their heroin use. At points during the "Live at Reading" DVD and the slightly edited CD version, the singer sounds like an animal in a bear trap. Other times you hear pain turned into the pure joy of sonic mayhem.

(Soundbite of song, "Sliver")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) Mom and dad went to a show, dropped me off at Grandpa Joe's, kicked and screamed, said please, don't go. Grandma, take me home, grandma, take me home, grandma, take me home...

HERMES: But some of the most telling moments on the DVD are the bits and pieces of cover versions, like the bit of Boston's radio hit "More Than a Feeling" that leads into Nirvana's hilariously similar radio hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Or the "Star-Spangled Banner" quote pulled from a storm of feedback, just like Cobain's Seattle predecessor Jimi Hendrix, that manages to parody a guitar solo while reveling in one.

(Soundbite of song, "Star Spangled Banner")

HERMES: "Live at Reading" is nothing more than a polished-up version of a bootleg that's been floating around for years. But between the raw power of the music and the details of the DVD - from the small smile on Cobain's face when he gets tens of thousands of fans to yell, we love you, Courtney, to the close-up of blood spatters on his guitar pickups - I'd argue it's one of the greatest live rock records ever made - if a DVD still counts as a rock record.

With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrating its 25th anniversary, it's a shame Cobain isn't around to throw his two cents at the proceedings. Then again, maybe we should view "Live at Reading" as just that.

(Soundbite of song, ´┐ŻAll Apologies´┐Ż)

BLOCK: That's critic Will Hermes reviewing the reissue of Nirvana's album "Bleach" and their "Live at Reading" DVD.

(Soundbite of song, "All Apologies")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) What else could I be? All apologies. What else could I say?

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