Tuesday, November 20, 2007

DVD Review - Nirvana: Unplugged in New York (****1/2)



I've never actually kept track, but if I had to guess which CD I have listened to most in my lifetime, Nirvana's Unplugged in New York album has to be right up there near the top. It's not that it is the best album I've heard (cause it's not), nor is it my favorite, but it may just be the most intimate and easily re-playable record in my collection. But after all these years and literally hundreds of listens later, I (like a lot of fans no doubt) never actually had the chance to see complete footage of the legendary performance, which makes this long awaited DVD of Unplugged on New York one of the year's most anticipated releases.

Various bootlegs of the show have been floating around ever since the days after Kurt Cobain's death (which occurred only 5 months after this show), which no doubt mired this release in legal trouble and more than likely contributed to the set never being available on any home video format prior to this, let alone DVD. The death grip on the Cobain estate seems to be loosening slightly with ever passing year however, and the Unplugged in New York DVD is one of the last pieces of the Nirvana puzzle to see release (the final piece? 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, still criminally absent from DVD).

To be honest, actually seeing the performance for the first time nearly 15 years after the fact isn't too much of a revelation, but the simple fact that this is now available for home viewing is satisfying enough. The band's song selection was immaculate, beautifully balancing a number of their lesser known (but ultimately better) tunes with a handful of wonderful covers, including definitive readings of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World", The Vaselines "Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam" and Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?". Of course with hindsight, nearly every original included here seems rather famous, but as is noted in the "Bare Witness" documentary (14 min) included on this DVD (there is also some nice if sketchy rehearsal footage), at the time many MTV execs were nervous that the band had chosen to highlight a good number of deep cuts and early gems rather than regurgitating radio singles (Kurt introduces "About a Girl" with, "This is off our first record, most people don't own it.")

The most interesting portion of the set to me has always been the band's decision to not only cover three Meat Puppets songs in a row, but to bring Curt and Cris Kirkwood on stage to play the songs with them. The fact that in 1993 the world's biggest band would bring with them one of the more idiosyncratic underground bands from the 1980s to play a handful of 10 year old songs (each selection comes from 1983s Meat Puppets II) is testament not only to Nirvana's love for the independent rock scene, but also to the band's awareness of their status as underground ambassadors of cool. The entire unedited 14 song set (here in its entirety) is, to say the least, mesmerizing, at once ominous and soothing, and in it's own unique way, life affirming. It's hard to imagine Kurt being so gentle and at ease with what we now know was going on behind the curtain in his personal life (another shameless Love & Death plug). Judged solely on it's musical merit though, what you have is one of the most important live documents in music history and a look at the softer side of perhaps my generations greatest rock band.

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