[11 December 2009]
So many posthumous recordings—especially live recordings—are released with the sole intent of excavating the vaults in order to satisfy fans of an artist taken prematurely that it’s easy to be suspicious whenever a new one makes the rounds. More often than not, chances are that had the artist in question not left us before his or her time, these albums would never see the light of day. To a disheartening extent, these releases are frequently bottom-of-the-barrel scrapings from a scarce recording legacy, and with so much demand from grieving fans and so little supply due to a career cut short, we’re forced to make due with what we’re left with. Live at Reading is not one of those albums.
Lord knows the last thing the music press needs is another tedious essay reiterating Nirvana’s cultural impact and influence. During an era of pop music where backstory means nearly as much as the tunes presented with them, it’s tremendously refreshing to discover an album that not only lives up to the expectations heralded by its history, but supersedes them. The year was 1992, and Nirvana were on top of the world—and we all know why, so I’ll save you the umpteenth recap of their meteoric rise and fall—when they took the stage to headline the Reading Festival. Amid a plethora of rumors that entangled not only the band’s artistic avenues but Kurt Cobain’s personal life, to say that the Seattle trio had a great deal of baggage to overcome is a bit of an understatement. When it came time to sink-or-swim, not only did the world’s biggest band disprove any skepticism lingering on the tongues of their critics regarding their endurance, they shattered them entirely, playing with a reckless, utterly joyous abandon that does everything in its power to belie any notion that they were on the verge of a collapse.
Making his grand entrance slumped in a wheelchair and draped in a hospital gown, Cobain thumbs his nose at the controversies enshrouding him and his band, cheekily downplaying the drama before diving headfirst into a surging “Breed” that sets the bar for the energy that throttles the band forward for the rest of the set. Given the tragedies that have inevitably marred Nirvana’s legacy since Cobain’s death, the sense of urgency and roaring ferocity that have forever acted as catalysts for their harrowing songs have often gone overlooked in favor of the romanticized, sensationalized pain and torment that’s easier read at face value. Here, that pulsing, beating heart—driven as much by bizarre humor and eccentricity as by suffering—is underscored through the band’s lively performance, their freewheeling tenacity gaining momentum as they tear through radio staples and buried treasures alike. What keeps this recording revelatory as well as exhilarating is how the band barely makes a distinction between the two, treating both fan favorites and rarities as one and the same as they jolt with ease from one highlight to the next, demonstrating with a ripping intensity how each song reveals a different, yet equally vital facet of Nirvana’s character. The elating sense that these qualities, which too often feel like long-lost attributes of a truly exceptional band, feel like they’re being restored may be the most heartening thing about Live at Reading.
While each era gets its time in the spotlight, the band are both wise and gutsy in dispensing with the hits halfway through the concert, allowing them the opportunity to not only trickle out a handful of In Utero cuts still due for release at the time, but also to accentuate their arty pranksterism in the process. Cobain’s sense of pride beams through the Wipers and Fang covers that pummel out toward the end of the set, but he also bestows upon his audience the caustic, irreverent attitude that places spastic freak-outs like “Tourette’s” aside bubblegum strummers like “About a Girl”. By delivering so many contradictory motions in such a sputtering, erratic fashion, the band draws a portrait that not only tears down any criticisms leveled at them as one-trick ponies, but gives a well-rounded illustration of what a multi-dimensional group they were. Live at Reading crystallizes a consummate moment in time, capturing Nirvana just after the blow-up that Nevermind sparked, yet just before that same impetus painted them into a corner. Here was a band pinned between two pillars of time, revolutionizing pop music while in the process of transcending the incendiary scene that propelled them to the forefront of the alternative rock phenomena.
It’s difficult to reason with the label’s decision to release the live compilation From the Muddy Banks of the Wiskah in place of this era-defining document just following the height of Nirvana’s cultural ubiquity. While the aforementioned disc caught in brief, brilliant flashes the character that helped Nirvana conquer pop music in the 1990s, the Reading concert presents in complete, untainted glory the same inimitable nature that Muddy Banks came up short of relaying. Floating around as a bootleg since the show halted to a conclusion on the night of August 30th, this recording retains every bit of the soaring, raucous spirit that has procured its status as one of the great not-quite-lost yet not-quite-renowned gigs of rock and roll. It’s precisely that spirit that makes Live at Reading a document not only worth preserving, but one that requires repeated return trips. This officially produced, unvarnished recording blows off the dust that stuck to bootlegs, allowing the band’s pulverizing, freewheeling performance to breathe in a manner that should be striking even to die-hards who’ve owned this set in one form or another dozens of times over throughout the years.
However delayed Live at Reading‘s official release is, thankfully fans can finally rejoice and celebrate its long-awaited arrival. Few live shows are able to communicate a band’s heart and soul the way Nirvana’s is brilliantly encapsulated here, and it’s a testament to their undiminished position as possibly the Last Important Band that not only have none of the pleasures or treasures revealed here faded over the years since its recording, but they’ve only been enhanced. It’s with a certain degree of poignancy that this belatedly issued set feels like a crowning conclusion to a career too often buried underneath myths, generalizations, and misconceptions. This, in a fair world, is what Nirvana should be remembered for; this is what Nirvana was like at the height of their powers. It stands, at last and rightfully so, alongside Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, and the release of Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” gig as one of the greatest live albums ever.