Review: Even absent Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s power shines bright as surviving members reunite
Peering down from the stage of the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday, Beck recounted the time three decades ago when he experienced “the most insane mosh pit” of his life in the very room he was standing in.
“I remember being lifted off the floor for the entire show,” said the alt-rock veteran. “Then I walked out of the mosh pit and my hands were bleeding and I didn’t know why.”
For the record:
3:17 PM, Jan. 05, 2020An earlier version of this story said that Nirvana’s song “Been a Son” appeared on the band’s debut album, “Bleach.” The song appeared on an early EP by the band.
The band on stage that night back in the early 1990s, he added, was Nirvana — the same one he was performing with as he spoke.
Is “Nirvana” the right way to refer to the group that bashed through five grunge classics in about half an hour Saturday? Beck himself didn’t call it that, nor did the band’s famous drummer, whose appearance was officially advertised under the name Dave Grohl & Friends.
But Nirvana in some form was definitely what people had come to the Palladium to see, 26 years after the death of frontman Kurt Cobain turned one of rock’s greatest bands into a legend.
The occasion was the annual fundraising gala put on by the Art of Elysium, a Los Angeles organization that sends musicians into children’s hospitals and senior centers and the like. Actor Topher Grace and his wife, Ashley, received an award for their work with the group; so did producer Linda Perry and her business partner Kerry Brown, both of whom organized the evening’s entertainment.
In addition to sort-of-Nirvana — which had Grohl and the band’s other two surviving members, bassist Krist Novoselic and guitarist Pat Smear, backing up Beck, St. Vincent and Grohl’s 13-year-old daughter, Violet, on alternating lead vocals — the show featured brief sets by L7, Marilyn Manson and Cheap Trick.
Introducing his group’s cover of “In the Street” by Big Star, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen tried to scare up a cameo by Grace, whose “That ’70s Show” used the song as its theme. Alas, the actor was nowhere to be found.
Grohl and his pals had no such trouble getting the response they were after. Indeed, what inspired Beck’s recollection about that long-ago mosh pit was the sight of dozens of donors and music-industry insiders, many in tuxedos and gowns, leaving their tables to gather rowdily near the stage as the band tore through Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” (Tables went for more than $50,000 to invited guests, while a limited number of $250 balcony seats were made available to the public.)
This wasn’t the first time Grohl had reassembled a version of Nirvana. The group performed with a number of guest singers, including St. Vincent and Lorde, when Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. And it was the surprise closer a little over a year ago at Grohl’s Cal Jam festival in San Bernardino, where Joan Jett and Deer Tick’s John McCauley joined the group’s surviving members for a set that included “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the MTV smash that famously brought grunge into America’s living rooms.
Here the band skipped that one in favor of two different tracks from Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Nevermind”: “Lithium,” which St. Vincent delivered with a headlong intensity, and “In Bloom,” for which Beck stuck close to Cobain’s sneering vocal tone even as he veered off-script in a scratchy guitar solo.
Beck also sang a thrashing rendition of “Been a Son,” from an early Nirvana EP, and a folky take on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which Nirvana introduced to its young fan base during the band’s appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged.” It all sounded good enough to keep the folks in formal wear moving.
Yet the show’s highlight was its least starry, and that was Violet Grohl’s performance of “Heart-Shaped Box,” the haunting mid-tempo hit from Nirvana’s final studio album, 1993’s thrilling, tortured “In Utero.”
Not because she blew the doors down with her strong voice but because she demonstrated how indelible the emotion — and the confrontation — in Nirvana’s music remains. Dressed in a lumpy sweatshirt, her expression somewhere between over-it and overwhelmed, the 13-year-old was clearly connecting with Cobain’s lyric about the dark pull of despair. (Not for nothing did her silvery-grayish hair call to mind Billie Eilish.)
More than a tribute to a friend of her dad’s she never knew, the song here felt undeniably alive. It argued that whatever this recurring Nirvana reunion is, the value of the thing extends beyond mere nostalgia.
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