Nirvana’s Biggest Live Month (Plus McCartney/Nirvana Footage Update)

Posted: July 22, 2013 in Nirvana Live Stats 1987-1994, People Near Nirvana

Since Saturday morning the YouTube quality has improved significantly when it comes to the McCartney/Grohl/Novoselic/Smear material…All the songs are now up there…

I’ve always been of the opinion that Nirvana’s career as a live band reached its peak in 1991. 1989 had seen them play 82 shows, turning what had been a relatively stilted live band into a powerhouse — it was their education. The pace dropped slightly in 1990, to 62, then rocketed to 92 performances in 1991 with the majority being in the final spell of the year. This quantity of work as a unit bonded them to the point that they could pull any song out of the bag.

Having plotted the overall numbers for the songs Nirvana performed live I was curious whether one could see that peak in terms of the sheer range of songs Nirvana played. There were provisos; firstly, the increase in set lengths toward the end of their career potentially would influence the results — Nirvana needed only 10 to 12 songs a night in 1987-1988 rising to a norm of 23 to 25 by 1994. Also, as Nirvana wrote more songs it would perhaps be natural that they would (or at least ‘could’) play more — again, potentially this would blot out any indication of their variety as a live act. Finally, for some months, there simply isn’t much data on their shows meaning strange results appear. But what the hey, I thought I’d simply give it a try and see what emerged…

I had one spreadsheet showing every song Nirvana ever played live, which I’d converted to try to show the span of time rather than the overall totals per month (by converting each month in which a song was performed from a total number of performances to simply a ‘1’ meaning I could add a formula that added up how many months the song appeared in.) This made it pretty easy to calculate how many different songs were performed that month.

Nirvana_Most Songs Played in a Month

The influence of individual shows could immediately be seen, for example, the early peak in November 1990 is down to the show at The Off Ramp Café where Nirvana triumphantly pulled out numerous rarities and new songs; the growling response to the weight of negative press coverage in late 1992 was the triumphant stomp of Reading which nearly hit 30 songs; the January 1993 peak is a result of the desultory show at Sao Paolo where the only way to make it to the allotted stage time (and not get sued by the promoters) was for the band to switch instruments and whack through a few sarcastic covers. The tail-end of 1991 does stand as the most sustained period of rapid set-list revision though I’d underrated the sporadic weight and variety of the In Utero tour.

What I was curious about next was to see the impact of removing cover songs from consideration…

Nirvana_Most Songs in a Month Minus Covers

The result shows clearly that Nirvana’s set-lists only truly ‘blow up’ once the band are free to unleash Nevermind in its full glory upon the public. Similarly, the increase in set-list length really does contribute to the 1993-1994 In Utero tour being far more varied than I’d expected. While the band were whipping mystery songs or covers out of the hat each night, they were playing a solid core of Nirvana’s songs. Late 1991, however, when In Utero was still two years away as a coherent album (if half written) was still the finest period in terms of the flexibility of Nirvana.

I did one last scan of the results due a suspicion that the November peak in 1993 was clearly the consequence of MTV Unplugged — another example of a special event in Nirvana’s history leading to unusual and unique choices when it came to sets (Nirvana really knew how to throw a party on stage…) I simply identified the drop in songs if covers were removed:

Nirvana-Fall in Songs when Covers are Removed

The results make Sao Paolo in January 1993 and MTV Unplugged in November 1993 very starkly indeed. It also shows that, beyond the total figures it was that spell in late 1991 where Nirvana were performing long shows and simultaneously varying the set-lists significantly. The best month to follow Nirvana was November 1991 as the storm was breaking and the band could throw anything at a performance.

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