Twenty years ago, Nirvana’s songs would have come to us in sweaty venues amidst crowd-surfing and checked-shirts, teenage angst and hero worship. But today, the grunge anthems play out in a bright gallery on Brick Lane, performed by a legend of another genre. Jamaican reggae artist Little Roy is performing at the opening of Nevermind – an exhibition to celebrate the two decades since the album that catapulted Nirvana from the fringes into the fire.
Having never heard Nirvana prior to the recording of his cover album ‘Battle for Seattle’, Little Roy’s uplifting take on the songs is refreshing and surprisingly effective. It’s a testament to the quality of Cobain’s songwriting that the music transcends genres. Despite his bleak lyrics, the songs always had something of an elevated quality – something that carries through in Little Roy’s reggae flavour.
‘Lithium’, in particular, is a knockout. The ‘yeah’ refrain becomes upbeat, a positive all-encompassing statement of glee and camaraderie. There is a clear lightness and a warmth in Little Roy’s rendition compared to Cobain’s darker melodicism. Little Roy’s rich roots tone gives life to the dancehall dub of ‘Come As You Are’, the darkness of ‘Polly’ and a captivating version of In Utero’s ‘Very Ape’. His huge smile and the rhythmic dancing of his musicians provides an unusual juxtaposition with the grainy, video footage of Nirvana flickering at his feet as part of the installation.
And so in this white-walled room with prints and memorabilia of Seattle’s most famous sons upon the walls, the Kingston harmonies and swaying grooves float up to the ceiling in a curious homage to an unforgettable band.
Photo by Claire Weir.