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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
he back of the case says it all: Witness Nirvana’s Unplugged performance in its entirety for the first time ever. It’s been nearly 14 years since Kurt Cobain’s death, and during that time, the Nirvana vaults have been rummaged through on several occasions; often enough, anyway, that you wouldn’t think there were any “first time evers” left for fans – but no, here’s the long-overdue DVD release of “Unplugged in New York” to give us one more.
You’ve seen the performance, of course. “MTV Unplugged”was slouching into middle age by the time Nirvana taped its episode, but the way the band reframed its songs – and the evening’s hits-be-damned set list – made it seem as though the show had been invented just for them. Unlike the growing number of artists who fudged the rules by hauling out organs, choirs and the like (or, in Springsteen’s case, just showing up and plugging in), Nirvana took this opportunity to draw down, pulling Cobain’s songs, and a handful of judiciously chosen covers, back to their roots.
Stripping away the feedback and the pop-metal sheen of the studio recordings didn’t diminish the songs’ brooding menace, however; if anything, those qualities are amplified here. Between songs, Cobain seems relaxed – even somewhat chatty – but once the band starts to play, he’s hunched over and coiled tight. At the time, it was easy to misinterpret Nirvana’s sonic approach (seethe on the verse, explode on the chorus, repeat) as evidence of boundless, volcanic rage – but if you really listened, and if you listen here, it’s just as easy to understand that the songs had less to do with anger than its aftermath. “Unplugged in New York” is all ash.
Given that it was recorded so close to Cobain’s death, it’s impossible to watch this performance without wondering where the band might have gone if he’d lived, or to read more into elements of the show – the vaguely funereal stage setup, this inflection, that song – than is strictly necessary. It’s pretty much always been impossible to watch this show out of context – to just enjoy it as a concert – which is a shame, because it represented Nirvana at its arguable peak.
Well. No matter how you watch it, Universal has assembled a beautiful reissue here; for starters, putting in the DVD takes you directly to the unedited show, all 14 songs of it, including “Something in the Way” and the Meat Puppets cover “Oh Me,” both of which were cut from the broadcast. No commercial bumpers, no menu, just the band getting down to business. Want to see the broadcast edit? Fine, that’s here too – along with a brief 1999 “MTV News”retrospective on the show, and footage of the band rehearsing “Come As You Are,” “Polly,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and “The Man Who Sold the World.” And did we mention that the viewer has his choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS 5.1, and Dolby Digital Stereo? This could easily have been a straight reissue, kicked down the chute in time to take advantage of holiday shoppers and nostalgic fans – hats off to the studio for getting this one right.
Was Nirvana ever as important – or, to phrase the question more specifically, as artistically significant – as so many people seemed to think in the early ‘90s? Almost certainly not. But they were an exciting rock band, and if you were swept up in the hype all those years ago, Unplugged in New York will remind you why.