Grunge reprise: Local musicians pay tribute to Nirvana’s legendary ‘Unplugged’ gig

Saturday night at The Front Porch, a group of local musicians pay tribute to Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged in New York" record, released 25 years ago this week. Getty Images/News.com Saturday night at The Front Porch, a group of local musicians pay tribute to Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York” record, released 25 years ago this week. Getty Images/News.com

The fuzzy, sage green granny cardigan hasn’t been washed in more than two decades. It’s missing a button, and the knit is stained in spots and cigarette-burned in a few others.

That sweater fetched $334,000 at auction last weekend because, despite its flaws, it’s an iconic piece of rock memorabilia, worn frequently by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in the months before his death in April 1994. Chances are, you’ve seen the sweater—it’s the one Cobain wore for Nirvana’s appearance on “MTV Unplugged.”

Released as an album on November 1, 1994—the band’s first after Cobain’s death—MTV Unplugged in New York has come to be regarded as one of the best live performances ever recorded, a series of songs that, many musicians and critics would argue, is considerably more valuable than the cardigan.

Patrick Coman is one of those fans, and his appreciation for the album led him to put together “Come As You Are: A Tribute to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged,” at The Front Porch this Saturday.

Patrick Coman. Publicity photo

Nirvana was the reason Coman picked up a guitar in the first place, when he was a preteen at the tail end of the grunge era. During his fifth grade talent show, some of his friends played a few of the band’s songs, and Coman soon asked to take guitar lessons. One of the first songs he learned was “About A Girl,” off Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach.

Coman loved grunge—Nirvana, Alice In Chains—and he couldn’t imagine listening to or playing anything else, particularly folk music, which “seemed too cheesy. Like campfire songs, things you’d sing at summer camp.” That changed when he got a copy of the Unplugged album and heard his grunge idols close their set with, of all things, a blues arrangement of a traditional folk song.

Nirvana was at the height of its popularity when the band recorded that segment in November 1993. The previous year, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from the 1991 release Nevermind, topped music charts all over the world, and was credited with bringing grunge into the mainstream. In January 1992, The New York Times noted that Nevermind was selling more than 300,000 copies a week.

MTV likely would have loved for Nirvana to play an acoustic version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” says Coman. But that wasn’t the band’s vision for the set. “It wasn’t greatest hits with acoustic guitars,” he says.

Instead, Cobain and his bandmates Krist Novoselic (bass) and Dave Grohl (drums), plus a few guests, played new, mostly acoustic, folk-influenced arrangements of 14 songs: one from Bleach, four from Nevermind, three from In Utero (1993), and six cover songs, including three tracks by the Meat Puppets; David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”; The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”; and closed with blues musician Lead Belly’s version of a traditional song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York was Coman’s introduction to roots music, and he’s played it ever since.

When Will Marsh of Gold Connections was in middle school, his dad showed him the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video, and not long after that, sometime in the early 2000s, Marsh got a “best-of” Nirvana CD (which, he notes, he still keeps in his car and plays from time to time).

“Nirvana was the first mythological influence on my music, one of those few bands that’s way bigger than a band,” says Marsh. “There was this wholeness to the music that struck me,” the way Cobain brought in sonic structures from the Pixies and song structures from The Beatles, says Marsh, “he brought it all together and gave me a formula for writing songs and performing. He’s been a huge influence.”

Alice Clair wasn’t even born when the album she’s helping to celebrate came out. In fact, she wasn’t really into Nirvana when she signed on to do the show. She’d heard the band on the radio and on the Guitar Hero video game, but says that grunge music gave her “a lot of anxiety” when she was younger.

When Coman approached her to participate in “Come As You Are,” the only song left was “Polly,” an anti-rape song Cobain wrote about the abduction and rape of a 14-year-old girl in Tacoma, Washington, in 1987. Clair learned the song from scratch, and says she’s come to appreciate and respect how many Nirvana songs are “heartfelt, and protest-type” songs,” ones driven by “raw emotion.”

Saturday night, Coman, Clair, Marsh, and a number of other Charlottesville musicians and Nirvana fans will play all 14 tracks from MTV Unplugged in New York, in order, but not exactly as Nirvana would have done it. It’s an homage, not a recreation, says Coman, adding that a friend summed it up for him pretty well: If Kurt Cobain could give you advice about what to do, it would be to be true to yourself and your performance style when you do these songs.

Ultimately, that’s the spirit of the record, says Clair. “I think it’s cool as hell that they went out and didn’t play all the hits. That, in some ways, [Cobain] is being difficult for all the pop audiences,” she says. “It’s great to be paying tribute to this particular performance, because while it wasn’t made to cater to so many, it absolutely did.”

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