Monthly Archives: February 2020

David Roback RIP

David Roback has died aged 61.

Between the records this most reticent and enigmatic of musicians made as part of the Rain Parade, Opal and Mazzy Star, his legacy as the master of Lynchian, gently psychedelic, neo-classic rock is assured.

Roback started out in LA’s Paisley Underground scene – a close network of post-punk bands whose response to punk was to return to the past, to mine records by the Byrds, the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, the Velvet Underground and Love, as a way of moving beyond the musical limitations of much first-wave punk.

Roback was guitarist/vocalist in the Rain Parade, having already been in a band called Unconscious with his brother Stephen and Susanna Hoffs, later of the Bangles. There are traces of his later songcraft on the Rain Parade’s album Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, but it was missing something: a great voice to sing the songs. Perhaps Roback knew it, as he left the Rain Parade to form Opal with Dream Syndicate veteran Kendra Smith (a feature of the Paisley Underground was the extent to which everyone played in bands with everyone else – hence the existence of this).

During the tour to promote Opal, Smith left the band, and looking for a replacement singer, Roback called on a vocalist whose folk duo he had produced. No disrespect to Kendra Smith, but when David Roback met Hope Sandoval he found the perfect singer to bring his songs to life. To mark the break from Smith, Roback and Sandoval abandoned the Opal name, and called their revamped duo Mazzy Star.

Mazzy Star got their sound down right off the bat. Halah, the opening track from their debut She Hangs Brightly, will sound immediately familiar to anyone whose only exposure to Mazzy Star was seeing Fade Into You on 120 Minutes: strummed acoustic guitar in the key of A, drums augmented by tambourine, simple Neil Young chord changes, simple Neil Young melodies, and Roback’s slide-guitar swoops, all of them bathed in cavernous reverb*.

Halah is my favourite track from She Hangs Brightly, but it’s not the only good one. Ride It On is also great, and I’ve got a soft spot for Be My Angel, which anticipates the 6/8 swing of Fade Into You.

Which, of course, it does come back to. Fade Into You is Mazzy Star’s legacy. It has a sort of alchemy. It’s one chord sequence all the way through. Its verse is one melody line repeated four times. Its chorus is a different line repeated three times with a slightly different closing tune. It could have been written in five minutes. But that’s entirely unimportant. What matters is the tone of Sandoval’s voice. The swooning slide guitar. The hushed, almost tentative drums. The narcotic reverb that swaddles the whole song. It’s a romantic song. People fell in love to it, and in love with it.

Mazzy Star had excellent timing, and they were beneficiaries of the alt rock boom. OK, their work seldom featured the wind-tunnel distortion and aggro vocals of Nirvana, Soundgarden, AIC and the rest, but perhaps the best thing about Nirvana’s success was the space it opened up on MTV and radio for semi-popular indie bands, especially female-fronted ones, at a time when Top 40 radio programmers still argued vehemently that only one record by a woman could be in heavy rotation at one time. Fade Into You and its parent album So Tonight That I Might See emerged into a new world where people like Roback and Sandova, shy and undemonstrative people, could be successful musicians, not just indie cult figures working a day job or two to keep a roof over their heads.

After Around My Swan, released in 1996, the band wound down, with Sandoval releasing solo records and guesting on records by Massive Attack and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Roback got into production (including work with Beth Orton), moved to Norway and made arty, experimental music for installations and films. The band reformed and released Seasons of You in 2013. While the band had never worked quickly, a new record seemed more likely than not until Roback’s death from cancer was announced on Tuesday.

 

 

 

New single out on 14 March

Hi everyone. My apologies for keeping you waiting for the next More Live Gonzos post. The last one was a pretty serious investment of time, and in the week since I’ve been busy and a bit stressed, and just not able to make time for the listening, thinking and drafting I’d need to put in to do the next one properly. So I figured I’d post about some other things in the meantime, while I try to get into gear on the next live album.

One of the things I’ve been working on is a digital-only single. My main focus over the winter has been to finish and release an EP that my partner Melanie and I are working on. The EP will be six songs, three songs each, and is basically all acoustic folky stuff: only one song features a full band arrangement. But both of us have interests across the musical spectrum, and we both had a couple of strong songs that didn’t fit the style of the EP. Rather than let them sit there for months, or years, we figured better to just put them out.

My 2-song single You Won’t Need to Cry b/w Hard to Begin will come out on Saturday 14 March. The songs are both, broadly speaking, indie-pop. You Won’t Need to Cry is a slightly mechanised 1980s kind of thing, with harmonies and doubled vocals and a lot of layered guitars. Hard to Begin is more of a McCartney/Elliott Smith type of song, with an extended chord sequence in the verse, a proper middle eight, some very Ringo-ish drums and all that kind of stuff.

It’ll be available through Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes (at least, I think so. iTunes will soon be defunct so not toally sure), Apple Music, Google Play, Soundcloud and a whole bunch of other platforms. But I thought I’d offer free-of-charge advance copies to readers of the blog, as a thank you for coming here and reading my blatherings. It means a lot that you do. If you’d like a free download code, email me through the blog or send me a DM on Twitter.

The Mel-and-Ross EP will be available shortly thereafter (I reckon April), and Mel’s single will come out not long after that.

You Won't Need to Cry sleeve w text 5 square
Home-made cover art. Excellent picture taken from the top of St Paul’s by Melanie. Less-than-excellent text by me.

More Live Gonzos, Part 4 – Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 by Tim Buckley

I suppose any reasonable review of Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 should begin with this. By the time Tim Buckley played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Lee Underwood, Dave Friedman and a hired-for-the-occasion Danny Thompson, he’d made two albums already, he was just weeks away from recording his first masterpiece, Happy Sad, and he was only 21 years old.

Of course, prodigies occur in all forms of music. But within pop music, even those who show great songwriting talent at an early age tend to be writing to a formula, whether it’s Chuck Berry-influenced surf songs or Brill Building girl-group pop. Tim Buckley’s songs could scarcely be further from formula. From Goodbye and Hello‘s pseudo-medieval prog-folk-epic title track or Happy Sad‘s brooding multi-part Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On the Pacific Coast Highway), Buckley’s music usually eschewed simple ABAB verses and choruses, and they had been more or less expunged by the time of Happy Sad.

He stood on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, then, a young man in a hurry: ambitious both professionally and artistically, with a voice that had never failed to carry him anywhere his imagination wanted to go. He was in the midst of throwing off the rather wet medievalisms of his first two records, had divested himself of lyricist Larry Beckett’s services, and was in a state of grace most musicians will never know.

The gig begins with Buzzin’ Fly, which was yet to be released and the majority of his audience would never have heard. The ringing suspended fourths and sixths of the intro, played by Buckley on his Guild 12-string acoustic, sound like the sun coming out. This is music of uncommon joy and wonder, as the lovestruck Buckley pleads to know everything about his new lover. Guitarist Lee Underwood, so crucial to Buckley’s fusion of folk and exploratory jazz, extemporises off melodic ideas that will reappear in the finished recording, while Danny Thompson, hired to stand in for Buckley’s regular bassist John Miller, sounds immediately at home playing this music.

Buzzin’ Fly would likely have been the first time that this audience had heard Buckley’s new folk-jazz music, on which he used his voice to explore and improvise within melodies, frequently over extended, loose structures. As if to reassure his fans, then, Buckley’s next song is from Goodbye and Hello. This reading of Phantasmagoria in Two for me crushes the more rock-influenced studio recording. Not simply because Buckley’s voice sounds richer, more adult and more wracked, but simply because the slower tempo allows greater nuance of phrasing. Underwood really burrows under the skin of this one; his needling outburst of tremolo picking after the first bridge is spine-tingling.

Buckley sticks with Goodbye and Hello material for the next song. Morning Glory was probably the best-known song from the album thanks to covers by Blood, Sweat & Tears (a bit of a horror show), Fairport Convention (wet, as you’d expect from first-album Fairport, but Richard Thompson’s on good form) and the Stone Poneys (wholly creditable, though Linda Ronstadt’s psuedo-British accent is odd), and the audience applaud in recognition after the first line. Again, this live version seems superior to the studio recording to me. Larry Beckett’s lyrics have never been my cup of tea, but Buckley wrings real poignancy out of them here, and the sparser arrangement suits the song and drains it of its preciousness. Danny Thompson wisely lays back, but Friedman’s vibes are particularly crucial.

In December 1966, Capitol released Fred Neil’s magnificent self-titled album, his second solo record. Its first song, The Dolphins, is one of the absolute pinnacles of 1960s folk rock. Tim Buckley covered it on stage in London, and would record it (as simply “Dolphins”) five years later for Sefronia. I don’t like that version much at all: the rhythm section stomps all over it, especially the bass player, and the backing vocals were a very bad idea. But Buckley could sure sing this song, so Dream Letter is much the best place to hear him do it. Underwood’s mid-song solo is particularly fine, and at other times in the song he seems to pick up on some of the ideas Pete Childs played on Neil’s recording, while Thompson underpins things with some inventive triplet patterns.

I’ve Been Out Walking begins by quoting Jackson Browne’s These Days (“Well I’ve been out walking; I don’t do too much talkinn these days”), which first surfaced the year before Dream Letter was recorded, on Nico’s 1967 debut solo album Chelsea Girl. I think we can assume Buckley was familiar with Nico’s recording and the quote is intentional, and was just a means of getting him started with his own song, as the rest of it bears little resemblance to Browne’s work. It’s loose and semi-improvised sounding, in the vein of his Happy Sad material. Buckley pushes his voice hard, at times sounding like Robert Plant, and the mid-song scat workout sees him reach up to the highest extremes of his incredibly wide vocal range*.

Like I’ve Been Out Walking, the delicate The Earth is Broken, which Buckley sings with just his own guitar as accompaniment, never appeared on a studio record. It’s said that the song is Buckley’s response to Larry Beckett being drafted, and he does seem genuinely bereft. Buckley’s vibrato, always extravagant but usually so assured, sounds vulnerable and halting, as if he’s not fully in control. It’s just a handful of chords over seven minutes, and almost uncomfortably naked, but it’s riveting, one of the best things in the whole set, and my favourite among the tracks played here that Buckley never released on a studio album.

He begins the improvised-sounding, mono-chordal Who Do You Love as if anxious to break the spell he’d spent the last seven minutes casting. He’s exuberant, but his voice has an edge to it. It’s jumpy, rather than joyful. Mostly, Buckley is playing with blues- and folk-song cliches. The playing by Friedman, Underwood and Thompson is fine, but it’s one of the gig’s less essential moments, and at nine and a half minutes it’s one of the few songs that outstay their welcome.

Returning to the Goodbye and Hello songbook, Buckley strikes up the dour, descending chord sequence of Pleasant Street. He takes it at a much slower tempo than the album cut, and in a lower key too, turning a dark fantasia into something much more obviously foreboding. It’s goosebump stuff, especially when nearly six minutes in he picks up the tempo and springs a surprise by launching into a verse and chorus of the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On. Vanilla Fudge’s heavy-metal-bummer cover of the song had appeared the previous year, and while I can’t imagine Buckley having all that much time its melodrama, it’s impossible not to hear the two readings as at least somewhat spiritually akin, even if Buckley’s reading of the lyrics (“set me free why don’t you, babe” etc.) may have more to do with his relationship with drugs than romantic entrapment, when we consider the song from which he segued into it.

Love from Room 109 (at the Islander) is Happy Sad‘s 11-minute centrepiece, a stark, achingly atmospheric medley composed of three distinct but musically sympathetic songs, stitched together so naturally that you hardly notice the joins. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Buckley plays the first two thirds of the piece – songs originally demoed as Ashbury Park and Danang (available on the compilation Works in Progress**). The album recording of these songs is astonishing, but this reading is just as good. In the opening section, Thompson shows just what he can do with a nice chewy chord sequence to work with, and Underwood and Friedman play as if possessed of a shared mind.

Five minutes or so in, Buckley switches to the opening chords of Strange Feelin’. Now, the intro of this song on Happy Sad, as Buckley’s 12-string strums gradually emerge from the Miles Davis-quoting vibes, is one of the most magical passages of music I know, and Strange Feelin’ without its intro is a fundamentally different piece of music, even putting to one side the fact that Buckley is at this point still working the song out, trying on lyrics and melodies to see how they fit. It’s probably only 50% of the song it would become, but that’s still quite a song, and hearing it as part of a medley with the first two thirds of Love from Room 109 recasts it entirely. Buckley’s half-finished lyrics are much goofier than the finished piece would be (“Ah darlin’, don’t you marry, don’t you marry the milkman/’Cos he’s always making the rounds”), much more unguarded, and after the darkness of Ashbury Park and Danang, the goofing around is a joy.

After a jokey introduction about New York’s lack of carnivals, Buckley and Friedman begins a mash-up of Carnival Song from Goodbye and Hello and Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, from the 1953 film Lili. Pauline Kael despised the film’s “sickly whimsy”, and something of that quality exists in Bronisław Kaper’s and Helen Deutsch’s quasi title song. The material is, at any rate, stretched rather thin over its seven minutes, and with Buckley’s guitar out of tune and his voice straining a little, this is the concert’s twee-est (and for me its weakest) moment.

Fortunately, the next track is Hallucinations, a setting for Thompson’s, Underwood’s and Friedman’s most adventurous playing. Thompson, who had gone toe to toe with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and John Martyn, was in his element playing this music, mixing jazz and folk so completely that they become a whole new thing, a true alloy of both. Underwood’s long mid-song solo, which mixes dextrous legato passages with a descending melody lines harmonised in thirds, is maybe his best passage of playing in the whole gig.

Troubadour is another one of the songs that never appeared on a studio album. Marred slightly by Buckley’s out-of-tune 12 string, it nevertheless takes off in its wordless la-la-la middle section, particularly when Buckley starts scat-singing, three and half minutes in. Underwood, Friedman are again crucial, creating a sympathetic tapestry behind Buckley’s guitar and vocal.

The despondent heart of Happy Sad, Dream Letter sees Buckley sifting through his wrecked marriage to Mary Guibert and wondering about his son (“Is he mama’s little man/Does he help you when he can? Does he ask about me? […] oh, what I’d give to hold him”). It’s heartbreakingly raw and tender, and on both Happy Sad and on stage in London it inspired wonderful playing from his collaborators. Thompson’s bowed bass is more often felt than heard, but provides a mournful foundation for Underwood’s needling Telecaster and Friedman’s vibes.

As the song finishes, Buckley goes straight into Happy Time from Blue Afternoon, though taken a lot faster and in a higher key than the studio version, once again seeking to shake off the darkness as quickly as possible. Friedman’s vibes bubble over, but Buckley’s own vocal improvisations are as notable in their invention as anything his instrumentalists play.

The heavily rhythmic, raga-like strumming that begins Wayfaring Stranger suggests an interest in Indian music (an interest he was far from alone in holding in 1968. You Got Me Runnin’, the apparently improvised piece Buckley segues into, is, like Who Do You Love, a little drawn out for me, despite his impressive vocal pyrotechnics. In the opening and closing versions of Wayfaring Stranger, though, his explorations are more successful and breathe new life into a text that even fifty years ago was probably a little too familiar to many.

Once I Was is a gorgeous closer. The Dream Letter version, shorn of its Goodbye and Hello arrangement of brushed drums and cowboy harmonica, sounds even closer to Fred Neil’s style than it does on the album. It has one of Buckley’s simplest and loveliest melodies, and brings the concert to a wistful end. At its conclusion, Buckley says simply “Thank you very much”, and the the applause fades.

Dream Letter is an astonishing record. It’s axiomatic that Buckley’s studio albums contain snapshots of songs that found their truest expressions in live performance. In this respect, Buckley was more akin to a jazz instrumentalist – or a jam-oriented band like the Grateful Dead – than he was to most singer-songwriters. It’s the songs from Goodbye and Hello that benefit most from being reinterpreted on the stage. In the couple of years since that album’s release, Buckley’s voice and matured and deepened, and was more elastic, but more fundamentally than that, he brought greater emotion and maturity to his performances. There’s also the matter of Underwood, Friedman and Thompson, whose collective ability to follow Buckley wherever he went is astonishing; it’s worth reiterating that Thompson was a stand-in who’d had minimal rehearsal time. The way he integrates with the other players is incredibly impressive.

Serious Tim Buckley fans won’t need telling that Dream Letter (and Live at the Troubadour 1969) are as crucial to Buckley’s discography as the run of studio albums from Goodbye and Hello to Starsailor. But if you’re a casual Buckley fan, or a fan of jazz-inflected folk generally, this is must-listen, a marvel.

tim-buckley

*He claimed he had five and a half octaves, but that seems a tall story that’s been accepted and passed down among fans. The lowest note I can think of in on one of his songs is the low B he sings in the first line of Happy Sad‘s Strange Feelin’. It’s quiet and quite thin sounding, so I don’t think he could go much lower than that and hit a strong note. The highest comes in that extraordinary outburst at the end of Gypsy Woman from Live at the Troubadour, recorded in 1969 (“Gypsy woman, ca-a-a-a-a-ast a spell on Timmy”), which is four octaves above his low B from Strange Feelin’. It’s possible he could hit higher than that, but I can’t imagine he could go an octave and a half above it.

**Thanks to James McKean for pointing me in the direction of the demo versions.

 

 

More Live Gonzos, Part 3 – Live at the Paramount by Nirvana

Here’s one I really go back a long way with. Don’t worry – I do have a couple of posts planned on artists I didn’t write about this time last year.

Shortly before the release of Nevermind in September 1991, Nirvana began a tour of theatres and clubs in North America, culminating in three West Coast shows with Mudhoney in Portland, Vancouver and their hometown of Seattle, where they were joined by Bikini Kill. They played their homecoming show at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on Halloween, Thursday 31 October.

The show was filmed (on 16mm cameras) and recorded for possible future release, and the audio was bootlegged for years. I swapped my old Nintendo Gameboy for a copy in, I don’t know, 1996 maybe, which tells you a) how old I am, and b) how long the bootlegs were doing the rounds before Interscope Geffen A&M finally released it on DVD, Blu-Ray and CD in 2011, on the DGC imprint for old time’s sake.

Of course, bootlegs of the other shows from the tour are probably available if you look hard enough, but the Paramount show was a special one for the band, who were still having a blast and hadn’t yet hit a level of fame that they couldn’t deal with, and it’s the only one that was recorded properly with high-budget gear and mixed by Andy Wallace. Whether the band were in such transcendent form as this in Portland and Vancouver, I couldn’t tell you. But at the Paramount, they were really something else.

As the gig begins, Cobain seems in an unusually good mood. He wishes the crowd happy Halloween, before introducing the first song as being by a band from Edinburgh, Scotland, who are “very punk rock” (in Cobain’s world, the highest praise that can be bestowed).

I’ve written before about my impatience with Nirvana’s cover of The Vaselines’ Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam, and the electric arrangement the band were playing in 1991 does even less for me than the Unplugged version, which at least had the novelty of Krist Novoselic playing accordion. What you can hear, though, is a throat-tearing intensity from Cobain from the off, a really good guitar sound (not always the case for Cobain live – sometimes his guitar sounded a bit rubbish. Here, especially, when playing his humbucker-equipped Fender Jaguar, it sounds amazing) and excellent sound quality. This is what good gear and a pro mixer can do for you.

Dave Grohl’s last cymbal crash hasn’t died away before Cobain breaks into the opening riff of Aneurysm. This is one of the greatest live versions of the B-side and fan favourite, and the intensity is palpable. Grohl is clearly giving the drums a mighty pounding (dig the way he smacks both his crash cymbals and keeps time with huge smacking quarter notes as Cobain plays the ascending part at the end of the intro; he addresses the brass like a boxer working the speed bag), and if you watch the video, you’ll see Cobain and Novoselic throwing themselves around the stage like marionettes being pulled by their strings. It’s as if the music’s playing them, not the other way round.

Then there’s the sound of Cobain’s voice during this era, before the constant screaming took it’s toll on his throat. Jayson Greene wrote well about the Cobain’s vocals in his review of the album for Pitchfork:

He sang in a way that was obviously unsustainable, even with the aid of heavy cough syrup, and there’s a thrill, although a slightly selfish one, of hearing his voice rip the air before he had begun to scream it down to the threads. His peculiar, yowling phrasing may have been a deliberate choice, or it might have been the only way he managed to wrangle those notes from a constricted voice box, but there is a terrible, riveting intensity to it: Words feel torn from him, bearing fishhooks on their way out. “Aneurysm”‘s “Love you so much/ It makes me sick” becomes “Laahve yeww sowl much et makes me SECK.” It physically hurts to hear, as it always has, but it gives you some of the most committed, clear performances of Nirvana’s canonical songs as you’re likely to get.

There’s a thing I value in some recordings that seems to me somewhat overlooked by many music fans. I suspect it’s something that musicians themselves value more than fans and it’s probably controversial idea anyway, because it takes us into the realms of an individual’s own subjective experiences, memories and perceptions, but I love when a recording really truly sounds like the thing being recorded. It’s much rarer than you might think. I love drum sounds that sound and feel like my own experience of having sat behind a drum kit, listening to myself give a snare drum a good solid clonk, with my ears maybe two feet away. Or what it sounds like to be in a rehearsal room with a drummer, my ears at about the level of the cymbals and have them swirling around me. I love recordings of electric guitars that capture the full frequency range, that slight sag of a tube amp being pushed hard. These types of recordings feel alive to me.

Live recordings are more likely to convey some of this sense memory than studio recordings, at least since the late 1970s. I once heard Ron Saint Germain say that once production gets beyond the initial bass and drums tracking, it’s the beginning of the shrinking process. A really well produced record, like for example Nevermind, may sound great, but it will have lost at least some of the power that was there when the band played in the room. You sacrifice size for detail.

Live at the Paramount retains a lot of size, a lot of power – more than even most live albums – and it can make you hear songs as if for the first time again. Drain You, the third song in the set, is like that for me. It’s not a song I tend to seek out much these days, and not one of my favourites on Nevermind. But here it’s such a thrilling mix of rawness – the force of Grohl’s kick drum, the dynamics of the noise section in the middle as Grohl plays those 8th-note build-ups and Cobain wrestles with his Jaguar – and sheer melodic and harmonic craft (the way the unconventional chord changes are totally justified and reinforced by the vocal melodies and Grohl’s harmonies) that it connects me back to how I felt about this band at the age of 12 or 13. It also shows that, if we needed reminding, the band’s members were craftsmen, not the primitives they liked to paint themselves as in interviews.

But, as if to show the crowd that they still enjoy playing up that image, the band follows Drain You with two cuts from Bleach, School and Floyd the Barber, the former getting a huge sweaty roar of approval as soon as Cobain plays the intro. Grohl is a pretty good double for Melvins drummer Dale Crover on the latter (though why he didn’t sing the prominent harmonies on the song’s chorus is a bit of a mystery – sure he had a lot on his plate already learning his predecessers’ parts on the early material, but they’re really quite obvious and do improve the song), and if he doesn’t replicate the double-kick-powered groove that Chad Channing played on School, he is a lot more steady, and the song doesn’t quite threaten to come apart at any moment as it does on the Bleach recording.

On later tours, Nirvana could play Smells Like Teen Spirit as if it were a painful duty, or not play it at all, but in autumn 1991 they were still giving their performances of it everything they had. They take it a quick tempo, with Grohl smashing the life out of his cymbals and playing every fill with authority and power. Cobain’s voice gets increasingly ragged with every chorus, and on the final held “a denial” it gives way entirely. While the studio recording works so well because of the tension between the song’s message and the polished presentation of that message, live versions from this era strip that gloss away, leaving edges jagged enough to cut yourself on. You hear it as the alien interloper within mainstream rock that it always was.

About a Girl is also taken briskly, so much so that Grohl pulls them back to a more workable tempo after he comes in. Listened to in conjunction with Teen Spirit, the two songs seem to end up in a similar place via different routes: on Teen Spirit, the band strip the song down to its rawest essentials, spotlighting the adrenalized, punky side of themselves; on About a Girl, they inject into it an energy and spirit that wasn’t there on Bleach, giving it greater edge and making it sit naturally with songs like Teen Spirit.

Polly is an extraordinary song, if you can strip away your familiarity with it to hear it as if for the first time. Sung from the point of view of a man abducting and raping a teenage girl, it’s a harrowing listen – the more so because it’s one of the softest pieces Cobain ever wrote. Yet, playing it straight, without going into a big rock ‘n’ roll chorus, Cobain keeps the crowd completely engaged. His willingness to explore these kinds of subjects, to speak up for causes that mainstream rock musicians wouldn’t go near, is an inextricable part of Nirvana’s greatness and importance, and you could easily make a case that he didn’t write a more important song than Polly. As Bob Dylan remarked after hearing it, the kid had heart.

Breed is a series of explosions, a frenzy of drum rolls and power chords, but with a pin-sharp melody that won’t leave you alone. The band play it with precision. Like In Bloom, which Dave Grohl has explained is him playing drum parts devised by Chad Channing, Breed was first demoed before Grohl joined the band. While Grohl’s drumming on the song is its most crucial musical feature, it’s worth remember that the parts he’s playing are Channing’s, and that he deserves a lot of the credit.

Sliver has an important place in the band’s history. Released in 1990, and the only song in the Nirvana canon to feature Mudhoney’s Dan Peters on drums, Sliver was self-consciously written as a break with the band’s Bleach-era songs, said Cobain: “I decided I wanted to write the most ridiculous pop song I had ever written to prepare people for the next album.” Thing is, that places more weight on the song than, for me, it can bear. It’s a trifle, paling next to even the least of Nevermind‘s songs. Whether on Incesticide or in a live performance, it never feels substantial to me, and coming between the casual brilliance of Breed and the band’s genuinely thrilling update of Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz doesn’t help it.

The studio recording of Love Buzz is mostly about the bass and guitar, and features possibly Cobain’s finest solos on record. Live, his playing was always scrappier, and he tended to adapt the pull-off riff to make it simpler to play. This version, it’s Novoselic and Grohl who impress most. Novoselic gets plenty of space during the mono-chordal solo to explore the upper reaches of his fretboard, while Grohl playing Channing’s parts is, again, a revelation. There was always something of the funk drummer in Grohl – a propensity to absolutely explode on the one, with huge cymbal crashes and a mighty kick drum. You can hear that – and on the DVD or Blu-Ray see it – here. A particular Grohl tic is to hit both his crashes simultaneously on the one for added power and excitement, and it sounds so right here: every huge open A chord reinforced by an explosion from Grohl’s cymbals. It’s so much fun.

Lithium is a mixed bag. The choruses sound great, but the verses are a bit messy, with Novoselic’s bass feeling like it’s behind the beat, or at least behind the guitar. It’s a bit of a shame. I’m not sure who the guilty party is but it does undermine the performance a bit if you’re listening at home; the folks in the audience may not have been aware of it.

Been a Son is one of Nirvana’s best minor works. Recorded by Steve Fisk for the Blew EP with Chad Channing on drums, then re-recorded with Grohl at a faster tempo for a BBC session (the version that’s on Incesticide), it has great mid-sixties John Lennon harmonies, here supplied by Grohl, and a really cool semi-distorted and flanged bass guitar sound. Written in 1987, it may have been Cobain’s earliest feminist statement, but its pithiness is still effective. Its verses are a laundry list of things the unnamed girl “should” have done but didn’t, before her disappointed parents simply state in the chorus that she should have been a son. This ability that Cobain had to distil a message is still underrated, as some of his lyrics work essentially as collage and resist line-by-line readings of them. When he wanted to make a simple point, he could do it as well as anyone.

(Sidenote: why is it that the similarly melodically simple Sliver kind of annoys me, while I think Been a Son is great? I wish I could expain it. The harmonies maybe.)

Next, after some screaming feedback, Cobain launches into Negative Creep. This is a fascinating one. There’s a quality to the original that I love: it’s incredibly claustrophobic and heavy, but as with so much early Nirvana, the band (especially Channing) are barely in control. That increasing sense that they are only just hanging together is mirrored in Cobain’s vocal, which gets more hysterical and ragged with every verse. It’s great, but it’s so over the top it’s a little comedic.

Live, Cobain’s vocal doesn’t have the same mounting hysteria. He sort of manages to get the notes out, but the effort is clear, and by this point in the gig his voice is starting to get a little thin and tired-sounding. So while the song gains a lot from Grohl’s brutal but very controlled performance, it suffers a little in comparison with the studio cut, which is basically made by Cobain’s crazy vocal.

No such issues exist with On a Plain, one of Nevermind‘s most uncomplicatedly pop songs, complete with middle eight and prominent harmonies. It’s basically a piece of rather meta (lyrics about writing lyrics, and in-jokes between the band members) power pop, buoyed by a bouncy bass line from Novoselic and a brilliant, very composed drum performance from Grohl – every fill is just so, all repeated until they become just as much a part of the song as the chord changes and melody. The band are perfect, and give the impression they could do this in their sleep. It’s really impressive.

The set ends with Blew.  The first track off Bleach, it can’t help but sound a little rudimentary next to On a Plain, but the crowd clearly love it, and the band, particularly Cobain, invest it with a lot of fire – his solo is nicely squonky, with loads of energy.

The encore begins with an early version of Rape Me. “This song is about hairy, sweaty, macho redneck men,” Cobain explains, before adding, “who rape.” Some critics (Michael Azzerad in his book Come as You Are, for example) have seen the song as a comment on his own media notoriety, but given that he’d already written it in late 1991, before he had become a household name and before any unflattering press coverage, that reading should be resisted. It is what it appears to be – a condemnation of rape culture. What’s striking, hearing it in 2020, is the lyric Cobain sings in the chorus: “I’m not the only one”. In other words, “me too”. Cobain’s repeated cries of “rape me” at the end of the song are hair-raising.

Territorial Pissings is taken at an absolutely furious tempo, before collapsing into a version of Endless Nameless to finish the gig off. If the encore is a little anticlimactic, it’s only because the band have blown through 16 of their best songs in the set proper and don’t have much left except a noise jam, a new song and a punky thrash. It’s fine, but the magic has already happened.

And what magic it is. Live at the Paramount captures Nirvana at the early peak of their powers. You could argue that the Reading set from 1992 is as good or better – I wouldn’t want to take sides – but this one’s my favourite. I first heard it in full when I was about 14, and didn’t hear the Reading set in full until much later, so I’m more sentimentally tied to this one.

The energy throughout the whole thing is so infectious that the album totally transcends the issues that sometimes negatively affect live albums, especially rock records. When you’re not there in the room with the band and the audience, flubs and missed notes and the rawness of the moment are obviously all more noticeable, and they can distance you from the song. The Paramount gig is raw: over the course of the show, Cobain’s voice becomes tired; in the loudest sections, his and Novoselics’s propensity to throw themselves around means they make mistakes and are not as tight as on record.

None of that matters. Tehcnical proficiency was never what the band were about anyway. What matters is the fire, the passion, with which they played their songs, the connection they forged with their fans by being so human up there, and the way melody and power were welded together by Cobain’s white-hot guitar.

Paramount_Theater_in_Seattle

The Paramount Theatre. Last September, Mel and I spent four nights in Seattle. We had a packed itinerary and didn’t have time for me to go looking for venues, but in the course of our wanderings we chanced upon The Crocodile, the Tractor Tavern, the Showbox, the Comet Tavern, Neumos – maybe more that I’m forgetting. Seeing the Paramount on our way to dinner at Quinn’s Pub in Capitol Hill was a genuine “oh it’s you!” moment.