UNPLUGGED: NIRVANA REIMAGINED @ His Majesty’s Theatre gets 6.5/10

Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined @ His Majesty’s Theatre
w/ Perth Symphony Orchestra and Justin Burford, James A
Saturday, October 10, 2017

6.5/10

As people walked into His Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday night, the first thing that struck you was the stage set up with the lilies and the candles – just like the original set. The second thing was how varied the audience was in age – from the Gen X and Ys that lived through Nirvana to the older generations that were there to see the orchestra. Of course it was going to be those long time Nirvana fans that Perth Symphony Orchestra and Justin Burford needed to impress most.

Prior to the concert, some punters took selfies in front of a nostalgia wall littered with iconic Nirvana merch, while local DJ James A warmed up those pre-gaming on the first level with a set of indie dance ranging LCD Soundsystem to TV on the Radio – one wondered why there weren’t a few more early 90s alterna-classics in the mix, but this was in part remedied with Hole’s Doll Parts as people entered the theatre.

From the moment the concert started, everyone was in character as the show transported us back through time to November 18, 1993. “Is Kurt Cobain in the house? Please report to Studio One,” was heard over the speakers as the stage-hands inspired by the old MTV Unplugged set in New York rushed around putting the final touches in place.

End of Fashion frontman Justin Burford as Kurt Cobain finally came out, hair unkempt and wearing a baggy, knitted jumper – looking the part and indeed sounding very much like Kurt for most of the performance. Burford and the orchestra started with About A Girl and Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam, surprisingly breaking with the original album’s setlist order two tracks in. But if you closed your eyes, you could imagine that you were in the room with Kurt himself. “This is my new band, what do you think? Certified punk rockers tonight… except that guy at the back,” and for those that know the Perth scene well, Burford was referring to drummer Nathan Sproule.

What was also really interesting and a great addition, was in between songs where Kurt would actually speak in the original Unplugged, Burford gave the audience information about Nirvana while still in character so it wasn’t just a concert that you were watching. It was turned into a show while still keeping some of the original lines that Kurt would say, such as “I guarantee I will screw this song up.”

As one of those long time Nirvana fans (and a purist), I will admit that I was worried about how it would sound and, for the most part, the arrangements were done perfectly and the songs are well suited to Burford’s singing style. Some of the highlights included Dumb, Polly, Something In The Way, Plateau and the arrangement for Where Did You Sleep Last Night? They managed to capture the souls of the songs in such a way that you just knew that Kurt would have been so happy with it and especially with the last three songs of the night – Lithium, In Bloom and Smells Like Teen Spirit – even ending the night with the violent smashing of a violin.

Of course, with anything like this, the pressure to do the best job that you can was intense and there were moments where that pressure was enough to cause cracks. There were a few moments that were enough to bring you out of 1993 and straight back into reality.

For example, there were a few wrong lyrics here and there – nothing big but just enough to make people like me cringe. A couple of the arrangements, especially for a treble-dominant Pennyroyal Tea, just felt a bit too happy and Burford almost had to scream to be heard over the orchestra. Unfortunately, Lake Of Fire just did not work at all. Burford struggled with hitting the high notes and it felt like had the song had been done slower, he might have struggled less.

While there have been individual songs that have been transformed into orchestra, I believe this is the first time that Nirvana have been reimagined with a full orchestral concert and especially MTV Unplugged where the idea was to strip back the songs so in reality, you cannot fault Justin Burford’s performance and you certainly cannot fault the Perth Symphony Orchestra’s performance. With a couple of tweaks here and there, this could be the closest we will ever come to seeing Kurt live in concert.

KAREN LOWE

Photos by Richard Jefferson

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