Review of Nirvana at the Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, IL October 23 1993
By Greg Kot, Tribune Rock Critic
A song describing rape from a predator's point of view is hardly cause for a party, but one sensed that just about anything the Seattle trio played Saturday at the Aragon would've ignited an audience- participation celebration, and often it did.
Yet the band never catered to its audience's expectations. Sure, there was music to exult in. But the most affecting moments served up by Cobain, bassist Chris [sic] Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl-augmented by ex-Germs guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston-were not so clear cut.
Although Nirvana performed two dozen songs, including most of the favorites from the 1991 smash "Nevermind," the set was far more diverse and ambitious than the one that nearly caved in the Metro two years ago in the band's last Chicago appearance.
Much immediacy was lost, however, as the Aragon's horrendous acoustics occasionally muffled Cobain's voice and muddied the guitars, while lights and strobes worthy of a Paul McCartney tour turned the stage into an airport runway. The band's breathing space was cramped by resin-coated plastic-foam trees and winged, life size anatomy dummies, like the one depicted on the band's recent album, "In Utero."
Like the show itself, the band's music also has expanded. Two years ago the live Nirvana was a juggernaut with tunnel vision, dominated by Grohl's bulldozer drumming and Cobain's caged-cat yowl. Now, Nirvana threads rock's disparate traditions: folk confessionalism, Beatlesque pop, metal roar, underground skronk.
From hushed acoustic revelations such as the Vaselines' "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam," to the ferocious "Scentless Apprentice," Cobain's increasing maturity as a songwriter and interpreter was evident. In fact, despite faithful versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit, " "Come As You Are," and other "Nevermind" favorites, it was Cobain's newest material that made the deepest impression.
The lovely "Dumb" and the elegaic "All Apologies," with the closing chorus by Cobain and Grohl an anthem-like mantra, sounded like lost pop classics from the "Rubber Soul" era.
The damaged ambivalence of "Pennyroyal Tea" and the cathartic spasm that is "Rape Me" were even more moving-the twin peaks of the concert. In the first, a rib-rattling performance was offset by the melancholy slope of the chords as a woman contemplates abortion , while "Rape Me" moves from resignation to anger and finally to triumph. Again the crowd sang along, this time more subdued, as though wrestling with the song's multiple meanings.
After a night suffused with conflicted music, perhaps it was only fitting that Cobain would make like a stubble-chinned Peter Pan and leap off an equipment rack. He took out one of the anatomy dummies with a flying tackle, splintering its head-instead of his own-on the floor. At a Nirvana concert, it seems nothing is safe, least of all the audience's expectations.