I was simply curious on this occasion how long, in Nirvana’s live sets, they persisted in playing more songs from a previous album than they did from the next. In my initial naivety I made the simple assumption that a band would simply move on from each album at some point and, through sheer boredom, substitute newer songs that hadn’t been as well-thrashed on stage. Of course this simply isn’t true. Later in life many bands end up retreating to greatest hits’ medleys as their audiences come to focus more on reminiscing rather than on a band’s new material. And sometimes certain songs are more amendable to a live arena than others; Led Zeppelin never let go of Whole Lotta Love.
In the case of Nirvana though, a band in motion and still somewhere amidst a creative and popular peak in the 1989-1993 era between album releases, I wonder if anything altered. The difficulty, of course, is that songs from Bleach had been played right from the band’s earliest days meaning, by 1993-1994, they’d flogged some tracks for 7 years; neither Nevermind nor In Utero had received anything like that workout with the earliest Nevermind song appearing live in mid-1989 and the earliest In Utero song in mid/late-1990.
Also, Nirvana’s live-sets gradually got longer by, on average, one/two songs each year from 1987 to 1994 so more songs were needed to fill the sets resulting in a lot of material from Nevermind and In Utero throughout those latter years. What we’re really looking at therefore is how long it took for Bleach to be overtaken as the key source in Nirvana set-lists.
The first notable element is the switch evolving across the course of Nirvana’s, admittedly short, set-lists in 1988. On January 23, 1988 the songs that later featured on Incesticide were still making up five of the set while Bleach was only two; Spank Thru, If You Must, Pen Cap Chew and Erectum also featured with a couple of covers tagged on the end. By March 19, 1988 Bleach and Incesticide are on even-pegging with the aforementioned four randoms still attached. Basically it shows that from kick-off in early 1987 right through until sometime in summer 1988 the focus was on this alternative vision of Nirvana in which the songs recorded in January 1988 still formed the crucial spine of Nirvana’s identity as a live band.
From October 30, 1988 onward it’s Bleach that rules. The switchover will have come in the sixteen shows between March 19, 1988 and then. As could be expected this dominance only begins to draw to a close with Nevermind hoving into view. Yet the expected takeover is significantly forestalled. There’s one show on May 29, 1991 where Nevermind predominates, after which its late August 27, 1991 before Nevermind again comes to establish control but even then it’s more of an unsteady parity with numerous shows where Nirvana returns to playing more from Bleach.
I wondered if this indicated Nirvana trying to maintain some secrecy around their newest material — like Krist Novoselic claimed they had to do in 1992 to avoid bootlegging. There’s a simpler reason though; while in retrospect, looking backwards, hearing early versions of Nirvana songs prior to their canonisation on an alum is great — it relies on knowing the songs already for them to have significance. Usually at a gig, when the band show off some new material, it’s a bit of a momentum killer, people don’t know the tune, they can’t sing along, they can’t anticipate moves and motion. So, until Nevermind was out, there’s a very ordinary reason not to overpopulate a set-list with it; the crowd would tire of hearing mystery songs, so it’s a crowd-pleasing behaviour. The showcasing comes only in the run-up to Nevermind’s release, then the dominance commences after that.
Finally in the last days of October Nirvana ease up and Nevermind takes its place as the provider of some eight songs a night with Bleach throttled back to four, sometimes five. Bleach’s dominance lasted a minimum of 36 months, October 1988 to October 1991, probably slightly more somewhere in those obscure mid-1988 months. Yet, given set-list lengths, Nevermind shares the limelight with Nirvana playing anything up to seven songs from Bleach on a number of occasions throughout 1992. It’s only in 1993 that Bleach fades out leaving Nevermind and In Utero on level begging…
What would it mean for the future? Well, there we’re into the realms of what probably can’t be told. Nevermind would have faded slightly perhaps but could Nirvana resist the pressure to play what would still have been their top hits? And given headliner status and longer set-lists it was hard for any album to slip away…