Damn. I've started this review a good five different ways, only to hit delete on my trite, clichéd summations of Nirvana's pop-cultural impact on early 90s youth (now aging millennials). Here's the truth. Ask someone who was between the ages of 7 and 27 in 1991 where they were when they first heard 'Nevermind,' and they'll probably have an instant, specific answer. It was a record that united kids from all different places and all different backgrounds because the songs expressed how they felt everyday. They were anthems for anyone who ever felt left out, weird, or different... which is just about everyone. And it was fucking huge.
Nirvana was my favorite band. Vocalist-guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl (though technically, he arrived in the middle of recording 'Nevermind') fused punk rock and Sabbath metal with poetic, Beatles-inspired pop-rock hooks. They took over the word, destroyed thousands of musical instruments, and tragically, it all ended too soon for my liking.
Now we have your one and only chance to see Nirvana in high-definition. Crazy enough, despite owning all the albums (cassettes, then CDs, which are now MP3s), singles, b-sides, and bootlegs, this is actually the first time I've ever been able to experience a Nirvana concert. Sure, there were TV things like 'MTV Unplugged' and VHS releases like 'Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!!', but none were full, uninterrupted concerts [editor's note: apparently, I missed 'Live at Reading' on DVD -- whoops!]. Finally, a Blu-ray remedy has arrived to erase the somber regrets of a 13-year-old teenage boy whose mother said he was too young to see Nirvana when the 'In Utero' tour came to the Worcester Centrum in the fall of 1993 -- and we all know what happened the following spring (if you don't, Google "Kurt Cobain April 5, 1994"). Suffice it to say, I'm super-excited to have this release, and it will be a highlight of my music and Blu-ray collection for years to come.
'Nirvana: Live at the Paramount' was recorded on October 31, 1991 at (where else?) the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Washington. And while you may have seen some of its footage in previous music videos ('You Know Your Right' and others) as well as a recent HD broadcast on VH-1, the Blu-ray is the only way to see the entire concert from the opening guitar riffs all the way to the demise of Kurt's splintered Fender. It's a fun period to have captured. The band was just breaking out, and they play a collection of songs off 'Nevermind,' 'Bleach,' and even toss in an early rendition of 'Rape Me' (from 'In Utero') alongside a full rocking version of a song, 'Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sun Beam,' they would eventually cover for ‘Unplugged’.
Between preparing and writing this review (and last week's VH-1 broadcast), I've seen this concert five or six times already (it runs a little over an hour) and already I can't wait to watch and/or listen to it again. Like Nirvana's albums, there are some days where you can leave them (and now this) on a loop.
Sorry this isn't much of a review. I suppose we could talk about the concert's filmmaking techniques or its structure, but there's little point. The energetic cameramen cover every imaginable angle to encapsulate a brief moment in time. They did a good job, though I suppose I wish someone had given them all modern high-definition cameras so it would be even better. The songs are all classics (for me), and the order in which they are played is a great change up when compared to the studio albums.
Here’s the full list:
1. Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam
3. Drain You
5. Floyd the Barber
6. Smells Like Teen Spirit
7. About a Girl
11. Love Buzz
13. Been a Son
14. Negative Creep
15. On a Plain
17. Rape Me
18. Territorial Pissings
19. Endless Nameless
If you're not a Nirvana fan already, for personal taste or age differences on the too old or too young side, I have no idea what you will make of this concert or band. I would hope the songs reach you in an emotional way, but it’s okay if they don't. A question to those who do love Nirvana and now have kids of your own: what do they think? Do they get it, does it matter, or no? I'm almost afraid to know the answer, for it would probably make me feel even older.
Oh well. At least I can always grab my flannel shirt, pop in this Blu, and hop back to 1991 where on a warm fall afternoon I call out to a group of buzzing sixth graders, sitting a few rows ahead on our yellow school bus, to ask them what they’re passing around. All I can see is a shiny blue cassette case with a naked baby on its cover...
The Blu-ray Disc: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Music Entertainment and Geffen Records brings 'Nirvana: Live at the Paramount' to Blu-ray' in a single, All Region BD50 housed in a standard Blu-ray case. There are no forced trailers, and the Main Menu features widescreen content from the concert while the song 'Breed' plays from beginning to end. It is currently a Best Buy Exclusive, and will be available elsewhere in December.
'Nirvana: Live at the Paramount' has two separate 1920 x 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfers of the entire concert. With both options accessible via the Main Menu, users can choose to watch the concert's full film frame (1.37:1 pillar-boxed) or a zoomed-in widescreen (16:9) optimized version.
In terms of which transfer to watch, boil that down to personal preference. Films like 'The Shining' existed in various framings on video and, in that particular case, it was clear the director's intent was always to crop the film into widescreen. With 'Live at the Paramount', I'm not aware of any preference either way, though this footage was shot and intended for use in a standard definition world, which has a square aspect ratio. But we exist in the world of widescreen TVs, so it's nice to have that option. When 'Live at the Paramount' recently aired on VH-1, it was shown in widescreen.
So how does it look? I've don't have much experience judging twenty-year-old 16mm film material on Blu-ray. 16mm is naturally grainier than 35mm, and presents a challenge for modern HDTVs, which look their best with the vibrant, crisp detail of modern blockbusters. For my eyes, watching the pillar-boxed version is like projecting an old movie on your TV because it features rounded corners and intermitted matte box shadows. This aspect ratio gives the whole experience a nostalgic sheen.
In bouncing back and forth between widescreen and pillar-boxed, I would say the grain in the widescreen edition is more prevalent and "noisy." But the widescreen's overall image is brighter (thanks to a third more pixels in use) and the band seeming closer. Oddly enough, when I caught the concert on cable, it didn’t' have all this grain; I think the lower resolution (720p or 1080i, I'm not sure) reduced its appearance. The pillar-boxed transfer offers a chance to see "everything" (good and bad) and is a slightly cleaner image.
Despite those differences, the video quality for both is better than expected, but not really a winner. The colors are my favorite; there's a lot of red in the stage lighting, and it's gorgeous. Skin tones are surprisingly life-like when not reflecting the blown out and colorful lighting. Also, while the source material (especially the pillar-boxed transfer) has a few blemishes in terms of scraggily hairs, it's in overall terrific shape for a film this old. No dirt or scratches at all. The encode also appears to be solid and purist, as there are no hints of edge enhancement, digital noise reduction, banding, or macro-blocking.
In terms of negatives, it all boils down to the available elements. There are lots of things you'd never see in SD, but this Blu-ray is never sharp in terms of focus or detailed textures. Black levels are dark, but slightly gray and tend to crush and swallow shadows.
As much as I loved watching this (and friends, I will watch this one over and over again), it's not the best HD material out there. Objective nitpicking aside, this Blu-ray looks as great as it possibly can, and is the highest visual quality Nirvana available. And you get to chose which way you want to watch it!
While the video presentation will leave some wanting, the audio is a punk rock gut punch of roaring guitars and thundering drums. If you thought two video options was nice, you'll love the ability to chose between three different high-definition audio tracks: Stereo PCM Stereo, 5.1 PCM, and 5.1 DTS-HD MA. After spending the first few songs toggling between all three, it was clear the discrete multi-channel tracks were for me, providing a wider soundstage and, with the crowds cheering in the rear channels, a more concert-like experience. As for what's better, 5.1 PCM or 5.1 DTS-HD MA? Up to you, really. I eventually went with DTS because I seemed to get a touch more bass out of the track; they should be identical, so any difference was probably in my head.
Overall, this is a killer music presentation. Encoded at 96kHz / 24-bits, this is actually the best quality Nirvana recording I've ever heard. Who knew grunge could go Audiophile? It's a delight, through and through. Vocals (and Krist Novoselic's corny jokes between songs) are super clear, the guitars own the mids and highs, and the bass guitar and drums hit hard and hit low. It's a little hard to compare this to a traditional surround mix; there's no really panning per se, but cheering crowds make your living room sound like you're in the middle of the venue. Do yourself a big favor, turn this one up loud and enjoy (but beware the occasional intentional and accidental feedback).
Sadly, there are none.
’Nirvana: Live at the Paramount’ is a must buy for fans. While the video isn't perfect, it's authentic to its source material, and tops nearly all other visual Nirvana time capsules. And the audio? It's audiophile-encoded awesome, which two different mixes for those who want to hear a traditional stereo or the more immersive 5.1 surround experience. If you're not a Nirvana fan, there's nothing extraordinary here to make you want it, but if you ever get a chance to rent or borrow it, your surround system and inner, angst-ridden, punk rock teen self will thank you (or pretend not to care about anything because everything sucks, dude.).