Nirvana headlined the Reading festival in 1992 as they were unsteadily acclimatising to their newfound status as multi-platinum unit shifters, frontman Kurt Cobain loudly declaring his disaffection with fame, and denying rumours of drug abuse that dogged him and his wife, Courtney Love. Indeed, hearsay across the festival site that weekend whispered that Nirvana would blow out their headline set, that Cobain was hospitalised by an overdose.
Such offstage drama lends an undeniable tension to this live album of that performance. On the DVD of the show that accompanies Deluxe Editions of this release (the standalone CD omits a song and all the between-song banter, and is very much inferior as a result), Cobain rolls onstage in a wheelchair and fakes an addled collapse, before ‘recovering’ and leading Nirvana through a ferocious and full-blooded Breed.
This venomous energy burns throughout what is by no means a greatest hits set; alienated by much of his newfound fandom, Cobain was in no mood to play crowd-pleaser. Performances of Nevermind anthems like Come As You Are and Smells Like Teen Spirit are by no means perfunctory, but Nirvana truly come alive here when exploring the murkier corners of their catalogue: fiery takes of fan-favourite B side Aneurysm and covers of The Wipers’ D7 and The Money Will Roll Right In (by 1980s Californian punks Fang) are highlights.
The true revelation, however, is the then-unrecorded All Apologies, dedicated to Courtney Love and their 12-day-old daughter Frances Bean. “[Courtney] thinks everyone hates her now,” says Cobain, betraying a vulnerable, boyish grin as the Reading audience yells “Courtney, we love you!” at his request. The song that follows remains perhaps Cobain’s most moving, and in this early stripped-bare version – just Cobain’s brittle, chiming guitar and howl, Dave Grohl’s powerhouse drums and Krist Novoselic’s McCartney-aping bass-lines – perfectly fuses Cobain’s equal love for Beatles-esque melody and punk-rock’s searing honesty, with a haunting intensity.
Forget the indulgent soloing and theatrical spectacle many live albums trade in. Live at Reading delivers instead an opportunity to revisit a key moment in rock history, unedited and unadorned; to experience the greatest rock’n’roll group of their era playing what became, tragically, their final performance on British soil. On this evidence, it was a truly remarkable night. --Stevie Chick
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