Nirvana bequeathed us just three studio albums in their time together, but their legacy has since been significantly enhanced by a number of posthumously-released live collections, among them MTV Unplugged In New York, Live At The Paramount, and From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah.
Following Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide in April 1994, the band’s surviving members, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, had intended to release what became MTV Unplugged… as a two-disc set entitled Verse Chorus Verse, with a full electric live album to counterbalance the acoustic setting of their MTV performance. However, the pair found it impossible to compile the latter while they mourned the loss of their close friend, so while MTV Unplugged… attracted widespread acclaim as a standalone release in November 1994, its all-electric sister album was temporarily held back.
A force of nature
Eventually compiled by Novoselic (who also supplied sleevenotes), this long-rumored live album finally arrived on October 1, 1996, when Geffen Records issued From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah. A formidable yang to the subtle, acoustic yin of MTV Unplugged…, this career-spanning, 17-track anthology (the title referring to the river which flows through Cobain and Novoselic’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington) contains some of Nirvana’s most incendiary performances and reminds us that, when everything aligned for them onstage, they were nothing less than a force of nature.
Though not sequenced chronologically, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah offers fans the chance to trace the arc of Nirvana’s career via their rapidly evolving live act. With Chad Channing still behind the kit, the earliest tracks here (London Astoria, December 1989, with Nirvana supporting Mudhoney and Tad) represent the abrasive Bleach-era line-up hitting an early peak with almost-there versions of future Nevermind staples “Polly” and “Breed.” At the other end of the spectrum, monumental versions of “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Milk It” and the already visceral “Scentless Apprentice” are a testament to the power of the band’s latter-day In Utero line-up, where they were augmented by future Foo Fighter Pat Smear on second guitar.
Riding the crest of a wave
Perhaps inevitably, though, the magic really happens on the tracks captured during late 1991. With Nevermind breaking worldwide, Nirvana was riding the crest of a wave, and the energy and excitement is palpable on each and every song culled from the European and US concerts they performed during this period.
Throwing down the gauntlet are tracks culled from a scintillating show at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, with the standouts including a venomous version of Bleach highlight “School” and a tumultuous “Lithium,” on which Cobain howls his throat raw.
Yet even these notables are usurped by a remarkable hat-trick of songs dating from California’s Del Mar Fairgrounds in December 1991. At this show, Nirvana performed on an all-star alt.rock bill that included Red Hot Chili Peppers and fast-rising grunge rivals Pearl Jam, and, as Novoselic recalls, their set was “particularly aggressive.” It was transcendent, too, for Muddy Banks’ stupendous takes of “Drain You,” “Aneurysm” and signature hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” suggest Nirvana were simply in a league of their own that night.
Proving that Nirvana remained as popular as ever almost three years after the loss of Cobain, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 and quickly yielded multi-platinum sales. Enthralling releases such as Live At Reading and the newly-released Live And Loud have since added to Nirvana’s posthumous live discography, but From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah remains a mandatory listen which, as Rolling Stone so succinctly put it, “proudly reclaims the fury, raw power and incredible songwriting that were all but buried under the crush of analysis that followed Kurt Cobain’s untimely death.”