Review Summary: The ideal cornerstone
The steady roar of a hungry, waiting crowd…a moan of mangled feedback, squealing and groaning…then a roaring, tense riff and an explosion of manic yet precise drumming, “Idon’tcareIdon’tcareIdon’tcare”
: a raw sound with masterful control.
Nirvana has never sounded as fun as they do in Live At Reading
is their scrappy, grunge cult album that has an appeal in its deliberate abrasiveness. Nevermind
is the album that grabs you by the collar with its importance, forcing you to pay attention. In Utero
was a different kind of importance, the importance that comes with cathartic rawness and bled soul honesty. MTV Unplugged
was the dramatic romanticism album, achingly theatrical. But at Reading….they sound FUN. They really do. The whole set is a kick, a blast, with childish delight running through the barbed humour. It also boasts an astonishingly good sound quality, considering that Nirvana, like the Sex Pistols before them, had trouble recreating their needles-in-the-red sound in concert (a problem not helped by Cobain’s sporadic apathy, or his delight in baiting audiences). In short, Live At Reading
is the album that finally captures Nirvana at the peak of their powers, the tower of their talent, and on an all-too-rare night in which everything comes together.
I said that this is a fun concert, and, even without the music, it really is. Cobain rolled onstage in a wheelchair to parody the media hype over his frail mental and physical health, reminding everyone of the Seattle trio’s goofy, yet sharp, sense of humour. In the opening verse of the childhood snapshot Sliver
, Cobain can’t help but chuckle as he sings, “Kicked and screamed/Said please don’t go”,
in a kiddie-whine, and in the finale Territorial Pissings
, the frenzied, screaming, absolute antithesis of a conventional show-closer, the boys cheekily tack on a Nirvana-style rendering of Hendrix’s The Star Spangled Banner
-a bow of respect to another left-handed guitarist who defined his generation.
However, the main focus is the sheer quality of the music. Opening with the intense burst of Breed
, in which they genuinely marry the scrappy grit of grunge with an arena size swagger, Nirvana just play song after song of blisteringly impressive quality: Cobain’s controlled howl on the gross/sweet Drain You
, (which, through “Slappin’ ribs to ribs”
, gives one of rock’s ickiest sex images) is soon surpassed as Aneurysm
is realised to its full potential with its pummelling, muscular structure, towering, Stooges-via-Zeppelin dynamics and the intense truth of Cobain’s vocal delivery (the lyrics are undoubtedly Cobain’s idea of a love song: but is it to a lady or heroin?)
“Come on over and do the twist
Overdo it and have a fit
I love you so much it makes me sick
Come on over, shoot the ***
Beat me outta me, beat me outta me”
Just to keep you wondering, I guess…
For the casual fan, every Nevermind
hit is here (in fact, eleven of the twelve tracks from the original album are featured at Reading), but expect the unexpected: on both In Bloom
and Smells Like Teen Spirit
, Cobain makes it frankly clear just how bored he is with playing to stadiums full of people waiting for a small handful of tracks: his rusted moans through the sludgy verses of Bloom
are almost self-parody, and he reduces the iconic “Here we are now/Entertain us”
hook of Teen Spirit
to a petulant whine before monstering the solo in a performance that is, at the very least, a fascinating insight into Cobain’s mindset. Although removed from the album, the intro of Teen Spirit
also had Novoselic singing the chorus to Boston’s More Than A Feeling
, which, as Cobain was fond of pointing out, features a very similar riff. But there’s no mauling on Lithium
, which is one of the highs of the concert with its chunky soft-loud dynamics and an anthemic audience singing along.
Loyalist fans are also rewarded, with deeper cuts such as Been A Son
and the much-maligned Spank-Thru
(the Reading version is the best version available) getting a run. Three songs from Bleach
are also featured here, and played very well: the Beatles-on-glue jangle of About A Girl
, the most famous track off the album, is perhaps the least noticeable here as Blew
is brought out to its finest ever realisation thanks to the throbbing bounce of Novoselic’s bass and Cobain’s keening roar as he brings out the frenetic chorus, and even the scrappy, Seattle glumness of School
is brought out to an arena style performance.
Months away from the release of In Utero
, All Apologies
all pop up here; however, none of them are realised to either the quality of the studio recordings or, in the case of All Apologies
, their MTV Unplugged
renditions. Irritatingly, and a little perplexingly, Cobain tars the former with the same brush as In Bloom
and Teen Spirit
as he gargles the “All in all, it’s all we are”
refrain on the outro.
Two impressive covers are played here towards the end of the album as Cobain plays out his love of showcasing his favourite artists: Greg Sage and the Wipers’ D7
goes from a deathly funeral march to a classic Nirvana ram-raid while the punky, sparse The Money Will Roll Right In
by Fang is one of the set’s lighter tracks.
Live At Reading
is a stunning album, with the highs utterly swamping the occasional average performance, and a must-have for all Nirvana fans. In fact, it’s more than that. I’m going to come out and say it: the mix of every radio hit, the surprisingly good sound quality and the frenetic fun ‘n’ energy of the set makes it the ideal place for a Nirvana newbie to begin.
*-career best versions