MUSIC / Business as usual, almost: Nirvana - Roseland Ballroom, New York

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The Independent Culture
Nirvana's show at the Roseland Ballroom was a last-minute addition to the schedules of the New Music Seminar taking place here last week. It was also the event's highlight. This was the band's first appearance in New York since 1991 and, as the godheads of alternative rock, they provided the perfect focal point for the NMS, where record company delegates gather en masse to chew the fat and hunt among fringe-interest bands for the next big thing. It was something for ordinary punters to get excited about, too - a chance to hear at close hand material from Nirvana's forthcoming album, In Utero, before a rumoured arena tour.

The band appeared on time at 9.30 and faced a mosh-pit of rucking, shirtless fans, extending three-quarters of the way down the Roseland's dance floor. The frail Kurt Cobain, on voice and guitar, settled in beside a tower of speakers, thus obscuring himself from the sightline of the industry suits and VIPs seated in a balcony by the stage. The first two songs were new - 'Serve the Servants' and 'Scentless Apprentice' - and made clear straight away that the band don't intend to compromise in order to match the five million sales of the Nevermind album. By comparison, 'Breed', 'Lithium' and 'Come As You Are' from that previous recording sounded almost congenial. Static and indifferent, Cobain hunkered down over his guitar, leaving the bassist to bounce around the stage and make prophetic announcements between the songs. 'There's a new music taking the world by storm,' he warned. 'It's called alternative rock.'

Big John the roadie joined in on guitar to bolster the heavier rockers ('School', 'Blew' and 'Aneurysm') and the band gradually tightened - a fierce attack of big tribal drums, thick guitars, fluid bass lines and Cobain's voice, which stretched from weary compliance to screams of incoherent anger. The new songs 'Heart-shaped Box', 'Penny Royal Tea' and 'Rape Me' stood apart as impressive, though were still close to what is almost a Nirvana formula. 'Tourrets' had Cobain impassively howling 'Baby, I'm dead' and was perhaps the highlight.

Bringing on a cellist, Cobain threw back his hair and addressed the audience himself. 'Have patience,' he said nonchalantly, switching to an acoustic guitar and a stool. 'We're one of the biggest rock and roll bands in history.' There followed a selection of dreamy, narcotic ballads, including 'Polly' from Nevermind, and 'Dumb' from In Utero (chorus: 'I think I'm just happy / I think I'm just dumb').

The encore was, inevitably, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', at the end of which the band left Cobain alone on the stage, lying on his back, wrestling his guitar to produce a maelstrom of sustained feedback. It took about five minutes. Then he got up, waved jauntily and sauntered off. Business as usual, really.