The reason for the early start? Here at the Arizona State Fair, the headlining act must finish their show by 9 p.m. so the crowd can disperse out to the midway and spend money on food and souvenirs. It seemed an unlikely setting for Nirvana to launch the first leg of the tour supporting In Utero, their latest CD. The band who put Aberdeen, Washington on the rock and roll map became household names in 1991 on the strength of their awesome debut, Nevermind. Since then, they've toured only sporadically in America and in clubs for the most part. The In Utero tour will take them to ballrooms, auditoriums and civic centers. For many fans, it's their first chance to see the band live.
"Please don't jump over the barricade. Nirvana doesn't want that stuff," the concert promoter warned the crowd as they tightened even closer to the bandstand. The band brought along its own carnival of diseased imagination. Two mannequins decked out like the one on In Utero's cover stood on either side of the stage. Artificial trees, looking more dead than alive, gnarled skyward.
In the few moments after the lights went out and before Kurt Cobain screamed out the first line to "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," fans packed the floor so full it looked like the Coliseum had sprouted pulsating cilia. Cobain, looking like grizzled horror-comic character Uncle Creppy, didn't talk much. He just went about his business of grinding his guitar and sing-screaming 21 rapidfire Nirvana songs.
The Coliseum isn't noted for great sound. It was built for basketball, hockey, rodeos and ice shows. So Cobain's vocal growl was as easily unintelligible as on the records. Yet there was no mistaking the grooves of "Breed" and "Serve The Servants." The set list hit all the expected destinations. "In Bloom" drew the biggest scream of the night for its heavy beat. "Come As You Are" and "Lithium" followed in rapid bursts.
By the time Cobain started "Heart-Shaped Box," the crowd's gyrations matched the hypnotic, undulating beat and the place looked just like the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video. Given that Halloween was just a few weeks off, it seemed appropriately eerie to hear the first crowd singalong of the night on the line: "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black."
Cobain was the focus of the show. All eyes of his bandmates stayed transfixed on his every move. Drummer Dave Grohl glued the group together as it shifted from quiet, folky sections to rocking thunder. Too-tall bassist Krist Novoselic (he changed his name from the anglo "Chris" a few months back) covered Grohl's rhythm like a second skin. Auxiliary guitarist Pat Smear, once of the L.A. punk band The Germs, just seemed to be along for the ride. You couldn't hear his guitar all night.
The imposing Novoselic, looking like Andy Kaufman reincarnated as a tall, thin guy, mercilessly teased the audience of Nirvana fans-come-lately. Just a few years ago, this band was playing bars like the Mason Jar, Phoenix's legendary rock and roll hole in the wall.
"Were you one of the ten people who were there?" Novoselic asked to no one in particular.
"Yeah!" thousands roared back.
When the lighters dotted the crowd for one of the slower
numbers, Novoselic skewered the concert cliche:
"You're supposed to save the lighters for 'Dream On'!" Cobain even started to sing the Aerosmith war-horse, imitating Steven Tyler's celebrated shriek.
A thunderous "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had the crowd moshing again at full-throttle. But Nirvana didn't stop there. In an effort to squelch arena-rock routine, the band closed the set proper with the downtempo "All Apologies" assisted by cellist Lori Goldston. Moshing to cello? What will they think of next?
There seemed to be tension between Cobain and the others. Or was that a joke? When they returned for an encore, the cellist was there, but apparently Cobain changed plans and sent her off. Novoselic began ot rant about the constraints on "the professional musician." Cobain cut him short, saying, "We've only got ten minutes."
"Okay, boss." Novoselic reponded. The reticent Cobain then spoke to the audience for the very first time.
"Should I put these guys on salary or what?" he joked. The crowd roared and the band lit into its hardest crunch of the night, sending the house into a final frenzy. Cobain, poised on the edge of the stage's apron, rained sheets of cranked-up guitar noise down on the worshippers. Finally, in the mold of rock stars he says he doesn't want to be, he jumped-guitar and all-into the sea of bodies and was swallowed up like a piece of candy.
Three burly security men rushed to his aid and plucked him from the human ooze the way you'd pluck a rock from tar. Novoselic thumped his bass on the ground, looking like a farmer using an old-fashioned butter churn. Smear slammed his guitar on the stage as well. Not to be outdone, Cobain shoved his guitar against one of the sidestage dummies in a pelvic lock and swirled it around. Satisfied, he pulled back abruptly and turned his guitar into an axe, chopping off one of the mannequin's arms. Then he smashed the guitar on the floor.
He got up, waved bye, and walked off as feedback howled.