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On Second Listen: Nirvana – Live at Reading

on January 20, 2010, 3:45pm

Imagine it’s 1992 and you’re in a crowd of thousands over in the United Kingdom. You have just spent the past few days watching bands like the Beastie Boys, Pavement, Porno for Pyros, and the Smashing Pumpkins. Just a moment away is a performance from the coolest band in the world, Nirvana. Back stage, Kurt Cobain is sporting a white dress and being pushed around in a wheel chair, taking part in his usual crazy antics. The crowd is roaring, everybody’s hearts are pounding, and then Nirvana just come out and launch into “Breed”.

Nirvana’s remastering of Live at Reading is by far the best live recording to surface in 2009 other than when Phish let everyone download those Hampton shows for free back in March. The fact that somebody finally decided to put this out so the public could hear it again is spectacular. This recording is meant to be preserved for the masses. Not because it was their last UK performance, or because of Cobain’s legendary entrance, or because it’s the greatest possible set list Nirvana could have ever dealt. This recording shows why Nirvana was important.

As stated earlier, the trio were gods amongst mortals at this point in rock history. Their frontman had achieved this rock icon status (that he didn’t want) and was all over the media, they had a record tearing up the charts and breaking records, and not to mention, there was a chemistry between Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl that was truly rare in pop music. The fact that Nirvana was headlining a huge festival like Reading was damn near monumental and one must assume the band had to be slightly aware of this. However, there was speculation. Because of all their media attention and bad press, the masses were unsure if Nirvana was going to be able to deliver. Therefore, they had to kick a tremendous amount of ass.

So, Nirvana opens up with an audio assault of Nevermind thrashers like “Breed” and “Drain You” to turn this crowd into a moshing frenzy of British mayhem. Of course, they play older songs such as “School,” and songs off the new collection Incesticide released that same year. Seven out of the next nine tracks are live versions of the 1991 classic LP’s tunes (the only others being “Tourettes” and “About a Girl). The hits like “In Bloom” and “Smells like Teen Spirit” are played, but the album’s songs with less airplay make a sonic resonance that is more epic than the singles. Most notable is “On a Plain”, a live version that will get you jumping around the living room wishing you were at that crowd. The second half of the album gets even more interesting playing numerous oldies like “Negative Creep” and “Blew” as well as songs off the yet-to-be-released In Utero like “Dumb” and “All Apologies”. The show closes with a version of “Territorial Pissings” that will get your heart rate up at the gym more than any shitty Weezy mix tape. The show is non-stop, with little dialog towards the crowd, and the whole time Nirvana is just tearing up the place. And you can fucking hear it.

That is one long show chocked full of classic material that still sounds as fresh, raw and intense today as it did 18 years ago when the show actually happened. The 24 song choices are woven so well that one cannot deny this could possibly be one of Nirvana’s best performances. The sound quality (especially with the remastering) is impeccable. Some Nirvana shows were a gamble since the band was explosive on a level that rivaled with the Sex Pistols, meaning who knew what the hell was going to happen on that stage? Nirvana, however, defied any preconceived notion that they would flake out at Reading. This recording proves that they owned that stage, if not the whole damn world of rock and roll for the night.

Nirvana was important, even though numerous music pundits will argue otherwise. Hearing a live recording like this is like having your own time traveling Delorean. Live at Reading proves in every way that Nirvana was (arguably) the best band of the 90s because it shows them in the way any good band should be remembered, live, raw and uncut. If your band can’t play live, what’s the point? Good records can only do so much, but this recording shows Nirvana didn’t just make a few good records; these bastards could play, and that is what counts when it comes to commemorating any band: Live music will always be relevant.

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