Review: ‘MTV Unplugged: Nirvana’

The idea would have been scoffed at a year ago, but Nirvana seems natural and comfortable within the confines of MTV's acoustic cash cow, "Unplugged," which may reveal one of the secrets behind the Seattle rock band's success. Have they sold out? Of course not.

The idea would have been scoffed at a year ago, but Nirvana seems natural and comfortable within the confines of MTV’s acoustic cash cow, “Unplugged,” which may reveal one of the secrets behind the Seattle rock band’s success. Have they sold out? Of course not.

The acclaimed series, which allows the channel’s more prominently played acts a chance to play a semi-acoustic set — and to possibly record and promote a record of it, though Gold Mountain, the band’s management, denies there will be an “Unplugged” Nirvana album. The series started out with stripped-down musicians, but recently the acts have gone as far as employing a 23-piece band, as Rod Stewart did.

But Nirvana employs only its touring musicians to help: Pat Smear, former guitarist for the Germs, whom Cobain introduces as “our new guitar player”; and cellist Lori Goldston (not introduced as their new cello player.)

The minimalist approach works well. Sitting in office chairs on a stage adorned only with candelabra and flowers, the group opens the set with “About a Girl,” with Cobain reading his lyrics from a music stand.

The band dips into its current release, “In Utero,” on only three occasions: for “Dumb,””All Apologies” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” The rest of the material is culled from previous releases, “Bleach” and “Nevermind,” plus covers of David Bowie (“Man Who Sold the World”), the Vaselines (“Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”) , Meat Puppets (“Lake of Fire”) and Leadbelly (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”).

The band makes no great changes for the acoustic set; it leaves the songs to speak for themselves. Cobain is the only one who speaks, and he manages to inject some needed humor into the show. (Introducing Chris and Kurt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets for “Lake of Fire” and finding they’re short a guitar, he jokes, “I thought we were a big, rich rock band; we should have lots of guitars.”)

“All Apologies” and “Come as You Are” sound no different from the studio versions, but a clue to the group’s punk roots is given by Dave Grohl’s facial expression — he had a look of wanting to bash his drums to Kingdom Come throughout the entire set.

Part and parcel of “Unplugged” is the sedate audience.

Director Beth McCarthy employs many cameras but avoids the oft-used-on-MTV “Dutch angles,” instead using traditional framing. A swooping crane-cam provides some of the better shots: close-ups that retreat into a full frame in one, smooth movement.

Editor John Vesey uses the MTV trademark style of fast-paced editing, but perhaps because of the back-to-basics style of the show, he blends and overlaps images so as to give them a softer feel — but he still cuts every four seconds or so.

Given the chance to promote a current album, the band opts for mostly older tunes and covers, a decision that their record company will surely frown on. If the band keeps its word and doesn’t release an album, undoubtedly a lot of fans will frown as well.

MTV Unplugged: Nirvana

Thurs. (16), 9-10 p.m., MTV

Production

Taped in New York by MTV at Sony Music Studios, New York. Created by Bob Small, Jim Burns; executive producer, Joel Stillerman; producer, Alex Coletti; line producer, Audrey Johns; director, Beth McCarthy.

Crew

Editor, John Vesey; sound, Scott Litt; production designer, Tom McPhillips.

Cast

Band: Kurt Cobain, guitar, vocals; Chris Novoselic, bass; Dave Grohl, drums, vocals.
With: Chris Kirkwood, Kurt Kirkwood, Lori Goldston, Pat Smear.
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