After a sold-out performance that was met with critical acclaim last year, the freakish Nirvana inspired love child of Justin Burford and the Perth Symphony Orchestra (PSO), Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined was back on Friday night for a one off encore event. It was a stellar performance that was more an immersive experience than a regular gig, and one unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon by those who attended.
Pre-show, it was obvious this was another sell out event as punters swarmed the theatre sidewalk like bees around a hive. From designer suits to torn jeans and plaid flannelettes, those who lived during the Nirvana era to those born well after, the crowd clearly showed how Nirvana’s music has transcended generations. The Boxing Day sale rush came early when the doors opened as people flooded into the venue, moving to upper levels like rising floodwater.
Second-floor was the pre-show place to be, with DJ Harvey Rae and Miss Q kicking things off with a nostalgic selection of early 90s tunes, including some grungy favourites, to moisten the taste buds for the main event. The likes of The Breeders’ Cannonball, Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing, L7’s Pretend We’re Dead, Pearl Jam’s Alive, Smashing Pumpkin’s Cherub Rock and Mudhoney’s Suck You Dry had feet tapping and heads nodding away in preparation for the show to come.
Auditorium doors opened to reveal a simple stage set-up reminiscent of the 1993 Unplugged original, dimly lit with a light haze throughout and littered with white lilies and candles, in what Cobain originally wanted to look as much like a funeral as possible.
The apparent unorganised and chaotic status of the stage on curtain opening, stage-hands running back and forth, orchestra members still getting into position and stage calls for Kurt Cobain (aka Burford), had some in the crowd looking a little concerned before realising it was part of the show, clearly highlighting those who hadn’t seen the stripped back and seemingly ad hoc nature of the original Unplugged. For those who had, a nostalgic grin grew across their face, a nice touch to the overall performance.
Things kicked off with a short overture by Perth Symphony Orchestra while some trivia about the original performance adorned the screen behind the stage. Justin Burford then waltzed on stage as Cobain, seemingly care free and in no rush, quoting Cobain with “This is off our first record; most people don’t own it” before jumping into About A Girl.
The setlist followed the original Unplugged set with the exception of Come as You Are knocked from 2nd to 8th place and On a Plain from 8th to 12th – a slight change-up and considering the way PSO played them and the songs either side of them, they felt nicely positioned.
Songs like About A Girl and Come As You Are had a somewhat cheerful and uplifting vibe to them thanks to the orchestra, while it added a whole new level of emotion to others like Polly and Where Did You Sleep Last Night. Polly was further enhanced with the story behind Cobain writing the song shown on the stage screen (Kurt wrote following news of the abduction, rape and torture of a 14-year-old girl after leaving a rock concert in 1987) which then changed to a flickering candle that went out at the end.
Following the original Unplugged theme, Burford would regularly talk to the audience or amongst the orchestra between songs, alternating between Nirvana facts or just quoting some of Cobain’s original lines from Unplugged such as “I guarantee I will screw this song up” leading into The Man Who Sold the World.
The closing of All Apologies saw conductor Jessica Gethin encouraging crowd involvement for the whispery ending vocals which made for another really neat moment before closing with a spine tingling Where Did You Sleep Last Night, which was met with seemingly endless mass applause as the curtains closed.
That applause continued until the curtains opened for the encore. Gethin this time out of the formal attire and in a leather vest with a red plaid flanny tied around her waist, it was clear things were going up a notch. Burford strolled on stage again, this time with guitar in hand, to play In Bloom, followed by Lithium and ultimate closer Smells Like Teen Spirit which also saw four black-dressed cheerleaders wielding pom poms hit the stage.
A grunge tone was more apparent in the encore songs and Smells Like Teen Spirit seemingly acting as a final drain of any remaining energy and opportunity to let loose for the performers. It was a fight against the urge to get up and move with the music, a fight some clearly couldn’t fight no longer as they just went for it.
Seeing Gethin ditch her baton (which looked like it actually hit one of the violinists, oops), pick up her violin and thrash out part of Smells Like Teen Spirit was awe inspiring and definitely a highlight. The song and show culminating with two violinists smashing their, hopefully just prop, instruments in ultimate grunge fashion, further cemented the fact PSO are the rebels of the orchestral world. That finale was met with a lengthy standing ovation probably heard outside the venue.
Having watched the Unplugged DVD many many times, Burford nailed the role of Cobain all night. The look, the sound, even the demeanour and off the cuff remarks throughout the performance were on par. From the lows of Polly to the highs of Smells Like Teen Spirit and everything in between, you’d be forgiven thinking you were experiencing the real deal.
What can I say about PSO, the orchestra known for breaking the rules, and their instruments too, but damn… they are one extremely talented group of musicians. From the heavenly chimes of the harp to the throbbing tones of the double bass and every little intricacy in between their combined sound was undeniably brilliant and a fine example of their musical talents.
While atop her podium, waving, hooking, slashing and poking her baton like a wizard casting spells to summon the heavenly, and sometimes slightly more demonic, sounds of the orchestra, Gethin was a performance on her own. Oozing elegance and grace throughout, when she broke out her violin for Smells Like Teen Spirit, she looked like a force to be reckoned with.
Overall it was an excellent performance and a great night that couldn’t be faulted. It was too hard to pick a favourite, but some definite highlights would have to be About a Girl, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Dumb, Plateau and Lithium.
What made the night so special was that it wasn’t just an orchestra playing Nirvana covers, it was something totally different and new (unless you also saw it last year of course). A complete recreation of Unplugged that encapsulated the vibe of and emotion behind the original, while still paying homage to the legacy of Cobain and Nirvana.
Every song was met with mass crowd applause and the closing standing ovation was a clear indication the night went down a treat. There wasn’t a disappointed face in sight as punters again flooded the foyer to exit. The only downside was it had to end, which clearly left everyone wanting more.
The year isn’t over yet but what the PSO and Burford put on tonight will be hard to beat. It was hands down one of the best performances of the year, and definitely the most creative thing this writer has seen. The big question is, what will the PSO reimagine next?
Photos by Nathan Bullivant