Oh Yeah, Nevermind
The 'revisited' concept takes a critical hit as inventiveness makes way for karaoke
Released in 1991, Nirvana's Nevermind was a near perfect distillation of one man’s view of 20th century popular music, filtered through his own lens to create something new and explosive.
The seismic shockwaves it created reverberate to this day. As yet, however, no band has come close to filling the void that the Seattle three-piece left behind after singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide. Since that moment, the global music industry has existed in a ‘post-Nirvana’ climate, still incapable of truly escaping the dizzying highs and crushing lows of that tumultuous time.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that for many, Cobain’s suicide, and the first time they heard Nevermind, might be two of the most pivotal moments in their life. So why would anyone want to deliberately pick such perfection apart?
That is the question we are here to answer in the Oh Yeah Music Centre, as CEO Stuart Bailie’s Nevermind Revisited night aims to reach inside the soul of the album and bring forth all of the darkness and light that is contained within.
'I read over Kurt’s journals, and even if I could get inside his head, I don’t think I’d want to be there,' Bailie admits.
'It’s a really, really deep record on so many different levels. But it rocks. There’s a folk strain running through it with these strange little confessionals, but it’s really out of time now. And in 1991, it was the sound.'
How do you reinterpret a classic? Of course, the danger is that the assembled musicians won’t match up to the original. But with a deep appreciation for the source, and a genuine love of the music, great things can happen, as witnessed at previous Oh Yeah re-do gigs, OK Computer, Astral Weeks and Nebraska.
But for some reason, this doesn’t happen with Nevermind. At times, it resembles a Nirvana karaoke show, with some of the performers opting for a note-perfect rendition of the material, performed with about 1% of the passion.
The much praised Fighting With Wire take to the stage first, proceeding with the Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It does exactly what is says on the tin. Whilst FWW are undeniably good musicians, if one were to choose between them lazily going through the motions or Nirvana eviscerating the heart of popular culture, I imagine they’d choose the latter.
Mojo Fury follow FWW's lead to run through ‘In Bloom’ with a similar lack of spark. The audience must wait until Push Borders’ chilling rendition of ‘Come as You Are’ before any hint of originality. Bravely stripping the song of all recognisable motifs, they play around the original, bringing its haunting soul to the forefront.
Push Borders' Peter McFaul details the secret behind their radical re-working. 'I’m honestly not a big fan of ‘Come As You Are’. I think it’s one of the weaker tracks. But that gave us the chance to break it down and do what we wanted to with it. It freed us up.'
Next up, Rachel Austin taps into the chaos that lies within the heart of Nirvana, storming her way through an uncomfortably claustrophobic ‘Breed’, with cello and guitar battling for supremacy as the madness escalates.
'The first time I played it on my guitar, and started singing it normally, it didn’t really work,' recalls an elated Austin after her performance. 'But when I started whispering and shouting, it took it to a completely different level, which I was totally satisfied with.'
For the next few numbers, it appears to be amateur hour with sub-standard versions of popular classics peddled out with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. LaFaro and The Dangerfields scrape through due to sheer brute force, whilst Colenso Parade reinvent ‘Lounge Act’ entirely in their own image, making it sound like one of their own ‘cheeky-chappie’ originals.
At least the Lowly Knights don't appear so bored as the musicians preceding them. A 13-strong musical collective (very much in the mould of the Arcade Fire), their bluegrass rendition of ‘Drain You’ is self-consciously quirky, and many of their number seem completely superfluous.
If Nevermind was to represent the apex of what ‘alternative rock’ can do, then this night is a sorry reflection on the state of Northern Irish music. According to some of Northern Ireland’s most promising musicians, the ultimate legacy of Nevermind is a dull and dreary one, characterised by a lack of ambition.
Far from being a triumph of local creative talent, Nevermind Revisited represents a nadir of sorts, a horrifying view of what is to come if complacency and musical stagnation are allowed to persist.
The Oh Yeah organisation is undoubtedly a good thing for music in Northern Ireland, providing a voice and a platform for local musicians - a force that recognises the importance of music in Northern Ireland. However, whether we have the talent to warrant such a venture remains to be seen.
The next album to receive the ‘Revisited’ treatment is Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. 'You do worry that if you do too many you’ll bore people, or that it will become a karaoke club,' Bailie concludes.
One can only hope that the musicians involved in Fisherman's Blues Revisited rise to the challenge and breathe new life into the songs they're offered, imbuing them with the wit and charm that supposedly makes music in Northern Ireland so special.
Either way, it hopefully won’t be as much of a mis-step as Nevermind Revisited, when The Emperor’s New Clothes were paraded in style whilst we all went along for the ride. As Cobain himself might have said, 'Oh well, whatever, nevermind'.
Fisherman's Blues Revisited takes place as part of the Open House Festival, on Sunday, September 28 at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, 15-21 Gordon St, Belfast.