Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 30, 2007)
When Nirvana hit the stage on Halloween, 1991, they were A Band on the Verge. Their second album Nevermind had hit the shelves five weeks earlier but hadn’t become an immediate success. At that time, the album still hung outside of the US top 40, but it’d grow and grow.
And the rest – literally – was history. Nevermind got to number one in January, 1992, the album sold more than 10 million US copies, and the band become known as a legend who made an immense impact on rock music.
None of which could be sensed on October 31, 1991, of course. Even though the album was doing pretty well, there’s no way anyone could anticipate Nevermind would turn into a multi-million selling cultural phenomenon.
This means that Live at the Paramount offers an intriguing glimpse of the band. Nevermind had already performed better than Nirvana’s 1989 debut Bleach - which never even charted – but like I said, no one figured it’d become a genre-defining release. Nirvana was still just another little rock band, not the official Voice of a Generation.
Live presents the entire 19-song concert. Six of the songs come from Bleach: “School”, “Floyd the Barber”, “About a Girl”, “Love Buzz”, “Blew” and “Negative Creep”. Another eight from Nevermind arrive: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Drain You”, “Polly”, “Breed”, “Lithium”, “On a Plain”, “Territorial Pissings” and so-called “hidden track” “Endless, Nameless”.
As for the other five tracks, we locate a cover of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”. “Been a Son”, “Aneurysm” and “Sliver” were all B-sides to Nevermind singles, and “Rape Me” ended up on the band’s next album, 1993’s In Utero.
To my dismay, I never saw Nirvana live. I liked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when it hit – even bought the cassette single! – but didn’t delve deeper into their catalog until March 1994. I eventually wanted to see them on tour, but the tragic events of April 1994 meant that wouldn’t happen.
When I watch Paramount, I can’t say that I find myself even more upset that I was never able to see Nirvana live. That’s not a condemnation of the show, which is actually pretty good. It is an indication that nothing great comes from the performance.
Could Nirvana be a tremendous live band? Maybe – I’ll leave that to bigger fans to decide. Based on the evidence here, though, they come across as effective but not better than pretty good. The Paramount show offers a strong set that sounds solid; it just never leaps to a higher level. Perhaps that’s the burden of Nirvana: the band’s become such a legend that we can’t accept less than transcendence.
But I don’t want to leave an impression of dissatisfaction, because I actually like the show – I just don’t love it, and I can’t find much here that I think sounds better live than in the studio. The songs get a little more energy at times, but they don’t outdo their studio counterparts.
Which means the performances of Paramount fail the litmus test of Live Band Greatness. When I listen to the best live acts, they often create new renditions of songs that make the original studio cuts sound radically inferior. I can’t say that happens here; the live versions are good but never clearly superior to the originals.
Still, the show does sound fine, and I like the presentation. Shot professionally, Paramount comes across as a reasonably polished production – but not too polished, so it doesn’t betray the band’s indie vibe.
I’m glad it avoids modern pitfalls like hyperactive editing, and it manages to feel like a part of its time. It doesn’t go for the obnoxious visual choices that often mar the low-budget ethos of the period, though; it just feels like an honest depiction of the show without any notable gimmicks.
And that makes it a good way to observe history in the making. Live at the Paramount doesn’t provide a stellar product in any way; neither the video presentation nor the concert seem especially excellent. However, it’s a generally good piece that lets us glimpse Nirvana at a crucial point in their run.