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Originally published Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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'Live at Reading' DVD shows Nirvana at its artistic peak

A review of Nirvana's "Live at Reading," a concert film released for the first time in 5.1 Surround Sound, recently remastered under the supervision of the remaining members of the band. A highlight: Kurt Cobain — unshaven, unwashed, beautiful — calling out his devotion to his wife Courtney Love and their then-12-day-old daughter.

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Nirvana's 1992 performance at England's Reading Festival is impossible to separate from its historical significance, which is this: Nirvana was at the time ascending to biggest-band-in-the-world status, and their 90-minute, 25-song set at Reading officially put them there.

This was August '92, a year after "Nevermind" reset the expectations and aesthetics of modern pop music. This was a headlining slot at Reading, one of the longest-running, traditionally career-making music festivals in the world. And this was Nirvana at its artistic peak.

All factors conspired for a Zeitgeist-defining moment. Seventeen years later, "Live at Reading" — an oft-bootlegged concert film released for the first time in 5.1 Surround Sound, recently remastered under the supervision of Kurt Cobain's estate and the remaining members of the band — proves Nirvana not only lived up to the opportunity, they smashed it to slivers and walked away grinning.

So go ahead and acknowledge "Live at Reading's" prodigious history and hype, but know it's the music that makes the film essential; every song builds the case. Every song builds momentum, force-of-naturelike, well beyond the mid-set rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana's unexpected chart-topper and presumed house-bringer-downer, to a critical mass unattainable any other time or place.

Here "Teen Spirit," MTV-sponsored jingle of Generation X, is toyed with — bassist Krist Novoselic starting it with the lyrics to Boston's "More Than a Feeling," its classic rock touchstone, before the band launches into the tune proper — and then dispatched with a long, violent coda. Songs before and after are given equal energy, most from "Nevermind" but several from Nirvana's Sub Pop debut "Bleach" and three from their final record, 1993's "In Utero," as well as a few covers. The sum is a performance of sublime intensity.

Humor is prevalent throughout. Singer/guitarist Cobain seems as much in thrall to his music and fame as amused by it. At the start of the set, he's carted onstage in a wheelchair, vegetablish in hospital gown and longhaired wig — a nod to his stint in rehab earlier that year. "With the support of his friends and family, he's gonna make it," Novoselic tells the crowd. Cobain struggles to the mic, croons the opening line to Bette Midler's drug-damage anthem "The Rose" ("Some say love/it is a river"), crumples to the floor. Then he gets up and the band drills into a series of songs — "Breed," "Drain You," "Aneurysm," "In Bloom," "Come As You Are," "Lithium," "Polly," "On a Plain" — indelible to even the most truant student of alternative rock. Played with cathartic, punch-in-the-face magnitude, they defile purist and puritanical notions of pop music in three-minute blasts. The band is blindly focused; the crowd is shell-shocked. Cobain spends the entire performance in his invalid's smock.

A highlight: Cobain, unshaven, unwashed, beautiful, tells the crowd, "This song is dedicated to my 12-day-old daughter, and my wife. She thinks everybody hates her." Aware of the document being filmed around him, he leads a crowdwide chant — some 60,000 people — of "Courtney, we love you!" then goes into "All Apologies." It's perhaps Nirvana's greatest song, revealed a year before its official release, and played with such gravity it feels near collapse.

Post-encore the band veers into less familiar territory, dropping early singles/covers "Spank Thru" and "Love Buzz" and covering Sub Poppers the Wipers ("D-7") and felonious Berkeley punks Fang ("The Money Will Roll Right In"). After set closer "Territorial Pissings," Cobain, Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl dispassionately demolish their instruments. A few minutes of bloody-knuckled noise, and then Cobain descends into the crowd and passes his guitar, still humming, to the worshipful front row.

The DVD's sound quality is pristine; camerawork is intimate, unobtrusive. Focus remains on the band; the crowd is given scant screen time. Only distraction is a guy named Tony who dances a kooky freestyle un-dance onstage for several songs. Annoying as he is, Tony only makes the band look cooler. He's the sole reminder that we're in the '90s and "Live at Reading" is a throwback. Otherwise this performance exists outside of history as much as it encapsulates it.

Jonathan Zwickel: zwickelicious@gmail.com

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