Despite the presence of Kanye West, Alicia Keys, and Chris Martin, the star-studded bill at Wednesday night’s Hurricane Sandy benefit concert in New York City was staffed mainly by the classic rock contingent, particularly of the British variety. “This has got to be the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled in Madison Square Garden”, Mick Jagger astutely quipped from the stage, which his Rolling Stones shared with fellow aged countrymen Paul McCartney, the Who, Eric Clapton, and Roger Waters. Waters’ rendition of “Comfortably Numb” with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder was one attempt to bridge the noticable age gap, but it was McCartney’s team-up with another representive of the grunge ‘90s that is bound to generate buzz over the next few days.
As the former Beatle put it to the crowd, he essentially found himself in the middle of a Nirvana reunion. Well, sort of: the late Kurt Cobain obviously wasn’t a participant, but bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl, and In Utero touring guitarist Pat Smear were. Since Cobain was the group’s mastermind, primary songwriter, and central personality, his absence means there can never again be a proper performance by the group as it was largely understood. But that doesn’t mean the spirit of Nirvana can’t inform the music these men generate when they play together, which it did when they took the stage for the first time together since 1994.
More noteworthy than the mere fact that they came together to play at all was McCartney’s revelation that Grohl, Novoselic, and Smear were coming out to perform a brand new song they’d written during a pre-concert rehearsal jam. The nearly five-minute “Cut Me Some Slack” certainly has the labored, tentative feel of something written by four musicians playing against one another until they hit upon a groove they liked, but there’s enough dynamism (particularly near the end, where the urgency picks up considerably) and Led Zeppelin-redolent heaviness to carry the song through (much credit goes to Grohl, a man it’s never boring to witness pound the skins). It was certainly a treat to see sort-of-Nirvana afford the 70-year-old McCartney the opportunity to rock harder than he had since “Helter Skelter” way back in 1968, woo-hooing and screaming “Set me free!” as he wailed on his guitar with a finger slide during the song’s pummeling outro.
Given the melodicism of the Beatles was a such an important influence on Cobain as a songwriter, it’s fitting that McCartney gelled so well with Grohl, Novoselic, and Smear. Nirvana backing a Beatle onstage and cranking it up to bash out a Zeppelin-esque jam? Kurt would’ve been jealous.