Sunday 30th August 1992 had been a long day at the end of a long weekend. The Reading Festival was, by this point, fully back in the game after its relaunch in 1989. Ever reflecting the musical world at large, 1992 saw the growing influence of US alternative bands – although Buffalo Tom, Pavement, Screaming Trees, The Melvins, a truly awful Smashing Pumpkins and even the Beastie Boys all found themselves near the bottom of the bill.
It was, however, all building to Nirvana‘s weekend closing performance. Following Public Enemy’s astonishing genre busting headline slot on the Saturday (following Ride and EMF), Sunday saw the rain fall and the crowd grow increasingly restless as pre-mobile / Twitter rumours spread across the site that Cobain was in hospital and the band had pulled. L7 in particular came up against a feisty response (leading to the famous tampon incident), as did Mudhoney – who responded with a set of epic intensity. In the end, Nirvana did appear, mocking the situation by having Melody Maker journo and band confidant Everett True wheeled Cobain onstage in a wheelchair and hospital gown.
All this I can recount from personal experience. What happened once Nirvana came on stage is less clear in the memory, the usual Sunday night at Reading victim of time, fatigue and noise restrictions. The performance though – the band’s last ever UK show – has become something of legend over the years, finally receiving the official release treatment here. That status was not ill-judged. Given that the band was going through a major re-shifting of priorities and desires (Cobain’s daughter was born the day before), Live At Reading finds the three piece dangerously close to being at the peak of their powers.
Cobain probably would have hated the multi-formatting of the release but in truth this is one of the few CD/DVD packages that actually merits the approach. In this day and age of massive stage shows it’s remarkable to see a band headline a major festival with so little razzmatazz. It’s of no matter, with this proving to be one of those rare beasts – a live DVD that actually bares repeated viewing. Mixing Nevermind crowd pleasers with older and more obscure numbers, this is a required purchase for those who still might wonder what all the fuss was about.
Unlike later in their career (but not much later) the trio approach the material from their second album with gusto, displaying the melodious touch that had conquered all before them just a year or so earlier. Even the great elephant in the room ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is given a thorough going over, although you’ll need the DVD version to catch the fantastic ‘More Than A Feeling’ intro. Indeed there’s an unexpectedly light feel to the whole thing, with the band in general and Cobain in particular almost enjoying themselves. It’s ragged, it’s raw, it’s out of tune in more than a few places but it’s absolutely thrilling throughout.
Perhaps even more poignant of course is the realisation that this would be virtually the last time that they were this carefree, this good. A version of the as yet un-released ‘All Apologies’ points to a new musical direction but their joyless, workmanlike destruction of their gear at the end of a raging ‘Territorial Pissings’ showed that, even after a show as great as this, they were starting to lose the taste. Within two years they would be gone and the battle for control of their legacy would begin. If this is to be the final act then so be it, it couldn’t be a better way to remember them.