One of the obvious highlights of last night's exceptional Nirvana covers celebration in honor Nevermind's 20th anniversary was when Eric Halborg of The Swayback told us we knew the words to the third song the band played and invited anyone up who knew the words to sing along. Plenty of people who had performed earlier in the evening including Le Divorce's Kitty Vincent and Joe Grobelny, Il Cattivo's Brian Hagman, Hearts In Space's Ezra-David Darnell and John Baxter got up there.
Those without the nerve or desire to do so still did so from the floor and seeing everyone really putting themselves forward in performing one of the true classic rock songs of the last quarter-century without any self-consciousness was a special moment of the whole show.
Things started off with what would have been Science Partner but was, instead, Courtney Did It because only Tyler Despres from Science Partner was part of the band that took to the stage. The confused looks on the faces of some people would have been worth the price of admission alone when Courtney Did It played "Heart Shaped Box," "Come As You Are" and "Sliver" like some kind of weird jazz lounge band. A conceptual joke? Perhaps but musically completely legitimate even if it wasn't the full-on grunge show some people probably hoped to catch. Despres even, at one point, asked if Jeremy was there. Some of us laughed.
Brian Hagman of Il Cattivo told us a story about how he bought a Cannibal Corpse album the same day as Nevermind and that the Cannibal Corpse album was excellent but so was Nevermind. Opening with "Negative Creep," Il Cattivo was completely convincing and almost scary with how close to the original all four guys were able to pull it off. It was like these four guys were playing a song they wrote instead of a cover. The Il Cattivo set ended with "Territorial Pissings" including the quasi-sarcastic opening sequence of that The Youngblood's lyric. Hagman's always been a madman on stage, completely consumed by his performance and fortunately he was joined in that by Matty Clark, Matt Bellinger and Jed Kopp.
For Night of Joy's set, this writer posed as Everett True and pushed Valerie Franz, wearing a bad blonde wig and hospital gown to boot, to the front of the stage in a wheelchair in a sort of recreation of the famous footage of Nirvana at the 1992 Reading Festival. Naturally, when Franz got on stage, she imitated Cobain standing up and then falling flat before getting to the set proper. Drummer Fez Guzman had already taught himself the entire Nirvana discography while growing up playing for ten years in Fissure Mystic prior to his stint in Night of Joy and it showed because he didn't seem to miss a single move and executed everything perfectly. Bree Davies (full disclosure: Davies is a contributing Westword writer) and Franz were as raw as you should be if you're going to cover Nirvana and any mistakes made were completely in keeping with the original band live. "About a Girl" and "In Bloom" were excellent, but "Paper Cuts" was darker and more scary than it seems when you're just listening to it on an album. Night of Joy's set ended with a song the band has played before with "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" where it sounds more like Killing Joke than Nirvana.
Hearts in Space performing Nirvana came as a bit of a surprise because instead of interpreting the songs in its own psychedelic style, the foursome just went with the punk spirit of the music. Sure, "Sappy" was closer to something Hearts in Space might play in a set of its own music but for "Get Away" and especially "School," Ezra-David Darnell and Jordan Huebner were absolutely convincing. "School" brought out a hidden reserve of ferocity in Darnell exciting to witness.
To open its set, Le Divorce, whose singer, Kitty Vincent, set up the show, played a more low key number with "Son of a Gun," originally done by The Vaselines and famously covered by Nirvana. "Polly" was as moody as the original but less undergirded by angst. Joe Grobelny called a guy named John to the stage to play harmonica for a cover of Leadbelly's "In the Pines" and the five people on stage got surprisingly bluesy with Vincent stretching her singing repertoire a little as a convincing blues singer.
All low key ended when Le Divorce kicked into "Lithium" and Grobelny left the stage to play in the crowd for a while and Vincent really seemed to throw herself into the song in a way she really doesn't even in the songs she's written. Her sheer fury in singing that song broke some kind of barrier for her as a performer and it was even a little unsettling in the best way.
The Swayback ended the show by beginning with "Breed." Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Bill Murphy is actually a talented guitarist who knows how to create great tone -- and he proved it last night by perfectly capturing the savage, yet melodic guitar work of Kurt Cobain.
Meanwhile, Adam played the dual leads as Pat Smear would have in the later era of Nirvana and Carl Sorensen and Eric Halborg lead the songs off with the rhythms that drove a lot of Nirvana's songwriting. Halborg has never been short on delivering surprisingly passionate vocals and he didn't hold back for this show either. "Drain You" was perfectly executed and of course, the crowd of people on stage, mentioned earlier, for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," was a powerful few minutes.
What came as a bit of a surprise was The Swayback ending the show with a blistering cover of "Touch Me I'm Sick" by Mudhoney. People chanted for more but, really, none of these bands were cover bands. They just came together to celebrate arguably the most influential rock record of the '90s and no one was less than impressive.
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Critic's Notebook: Bias: While I was much more inspired by bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine back in the day, I'll always be grateful to Kurt, Krist and Dave (and Chad and Pat) for making rock music that wasn't dumb, and which turned the pop world on its head for a few years and allowed the weirdoes to be in the mainstream just a little while.
Random Detail: Someone didn't believe Fez Guzman's mom was really his mom before his set tonight.
By the Way: "Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for, and about a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to," said Michael Azerrad from Come As You Are. Pretty much and some of us have chosen not to do to a younger generation what was done to us.