In the years since their ascent as the most important band in the world, Nirvana have lost some of their original luster. Long after being made a rock and roll martyr, Kurt Cobain can now be seen in cartoon form belting out Bon Jovi tunes. Drummer Dave Grohl has kept the flame alive in the Foo Fighters, but they’ve become artistically static. Courtney Love has sold much of her stake in Nirvana, and has been the center of some truly grotesque conspiracies. Worse still, grunge has graduated to roaming nostalgia status (there’s no other way to describe the Layne Staley-less Alice In Chains, or the current state of Pearl Jam). However, despite such adversity, Nirvana’s records still sound as alive and angry as they did when they were released in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Considering their lofty status as the definitive American band of the ’90s, it seemed odd that Nirvana’s most triumphant moment – their headlining performance at the 1992 Reading Music Festival – had never been commercially released. This performance took place at the pinnacle of Kurt Cobain’s life. His band was a worldwide phenomenon and life in the spotlight hadn’t yet worn out the Nirvana leader. Kurt’s home life was still serene due to the birth of his daughter, Francis Bean. Cobain’s sense of humor, a quality that has been forgotten in the wake of the band’s tragedy, was on full display as Cobain showed up in a wheelchair and hospital gown to bait the press.
In a way, it’s surprising that the performance is as strong as it is. By Dave Grohl’s account, the band had only one sloppy practice prior to the performance. Yet, the band played tight and energetically throughout the Reading performance. As one might expect, Nevermind is well represented in the setlist with all but one track from the seminal album making an appearance. Most of the remainder of the performance is made up of Bleach tracks and non-album tracks. It’s on the older, rawer material such as “School,” “Negative Creep,” and “Blew” that the band sound strongest and most interested, indicating that Cobain and company were already trying to shed the image that had been attached to them after the success of Nevermind.
The key feature of Live at Reading, however, is how it captures this important band at the peak of their power. Grohl delivered his most crushing blows behind the drum kit, Krist Novoselic was playing fluid, melodic bass lines, and Kurt’s guitar and voice were at their shredding best. As evidenced by the show, the band were still happy being in Nirvana, and they were playing as if they were still in the small clubs of Seattle rather than the arena-fillers they were now accustomed to. It wouldn’t be long before the burden of fame crushed the band and compelled Cobain to kill himself. Live at Reading serves both as a historical record and live album thriller, and as such should be considered one of the greatest live albums ever released.