The live record shows the lengthy gestation period leading into what became Nevermind. Polly arrived first as part of Cobain’s acoustic ‘experiments’ from 1987-1988, then Breed as part of the fuzzy sounding punk tunes appearing in late 1989. The 1990 record shows two distinct phases, firstly, the flurry of Lithium, Stay Away and In Bloom in March-April, then the first appearance of Something in the Way later in the year.
Seven of Nevermind’s thirteen songs were then drip-fed into the set between January and August 1991:
That single November 1990 show at The Off Ramp in Seattle tops LiveNirvana’s Overall Best Shows list for good reason given the cornucopia of thrills on offer. The show was a real statement from the band with new songs and rare old songs flung into the set with abandon. It looks like Nirvana’s victory lap; it must have really stretched and tested them performing so much material that was so rarely a part of their shows, or that had only just come into existence. With thirty-one songs performed in total it’s also the longest show the band ever performed barring the far less cheerful occasion of Sao Paolo in January 1993. This was their party and listening to it now, the enthusiasm, the “we’ve made it!” happiness is so audible.
The overall trend commenced in 1989 remains solid throughout 1990 and 1991; there’s a new Nirvana original entering the set every single month. Still accepting the limitations of the record (64% of 1990’s set-lists are known and 75% of 1991’s) the regular refreshing of the pool of songs is remarkable. These were the peak years of Kurt Cobain’s writing and each year 1989-1991 twelve new Nirvana songs can be proven to have entered Nirvana’s set.
Looking at the 1990-1991 live arrivals also shows the transition in Nirvana’s sound very clearly. In 1989 Bleach’s grunge dirge phase passes away to be replaced by a lighter tone, yet still the Nirvana ‘formula’ verse-chorus dynamic hasn’t yet clunked into place. The three tracks that appear in early 1990 inaugurate the spell during which the stereotype ‘Nirvana sound’ holds sway. Usually one thinks of Nevermind and In Utero as separate objects but listening to the songs appearing in the spell from March 1990 through November 1991 brings a lot of similarities into tighter focus. The furthest the band went from the norm in that time was going quiet (Something in the Way, Dumb) or going all out noisy (Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Curmudgeon.)
The record of covers being played over these two years continues to show the musically omnivorous nature of Nirvana — they’re grabbing at songs from across the spectrum of rock; their punk tastes are a firm presence in 1990; they’re chucking brief snatches into the set-list spontaneously alongside more practiced and full renditions.
Despite the break in performance in late 1990-early 1991 the band continue almost as if this two year spell is all one long trek, there’s no change in the patterns. One intriguing decision is to start using either Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam or L’Amour Est Un Oiseau Rebelle as the set-openers. It seems to be a way to defuse the craziness in the moshpit, starting with mellow songs to calm everything down before ratcheting things back up as the performance proceeds.
These years were the pinnacle of Nirvana as a live experience and as creative musicians. The sheer quantity and quality of what they were throwing on stage, this is a million miles from the bands that tour a single barely shifting set-list across a hundred shows. The band are showing such complete enthusiasm and love for performing and for music, it’s part of the buzz around Nirvana, the much-vaunted ‘energy’ that they were bringing to stages at this point in time. It also shows their self-assurance, that they were such skilled masters of the stage by this point that they could deviate from the script at will, could shift gears at a moment’s notice. It’s such a busy two years it takes me two screen shots to capture it:
This was a band that could do anything.