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Nirvana Unplugged vs. Metallica Unplugged

December 6, 2007

With the recent release of Nirvana: Unplugged In New York, I thought about my recent live music experience with Metallica. This year’s Bridge School Benefit ended with a Metallica Unplugged performance, a set which did not succeed in the same way that Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set did.

Nirvana’s appearance on MTV’s Unplugged was met with skepticism. People had a hard time envisioning what Smells Like Teen Spirit would sound like. Apparently, so was Nirvana, because they didn’t play it. The only hit that they played was Come As You Are, and filled in the rest of their 14 song set with obscurities and covers. This model of setlist construction was an anomaly for the Unplugged series, as most artists stuck to their hits. However, they made it work. The obscure tracks, from a mixture of Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero, were transformed into much more consumable sounds when made acoustic. Many of them were overshadowed by the monster hits that SLTS, Lithium, CAYA, and Heart Shaped Box were. The covers, Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam, by The Vaselines, The Man Who Sold the World, by Bowie, Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night, and three Meat Puppets covers- Plateau, Oh Me, and Lake of Fire, demonstrated the eclectic influences that Nirvana drew from. Nirvana made these songs their own- so much so that the Meat Puppets- who performed with Cobain on these songs- have voiced their frustration with trying to reclaim the songs as their own.

Metallica’s Bridge School performance began with I Just Want To Celebrate (Rare Earth), Please Don’t Judas Me (Nazareth), Veteran Of Psychic Wars (Blue Öyster Cult), Brothers In Arms (Dire Straits), followed by their own Disposable Heroes, All Within My Hands, The Unforgiven,, and Nothing Else Matters. Halfway into the second cover, the hardcore fans that had paid to see Metallica became disgruntled. The band seemed disjointed, and maybe even a litle rusty. Where Kurt’s “Am I going to do this by myself” comment was a jab in jest, Hetfield’s response to a fan’s yelling to play some Metallica- “Whatever you said, man- I agree”, seemed like a scene from Some Kind of Monster.

There are several factors which separate the success of Nirvana Unplugged from the lukewarm Metallica Unplugged:

– Nirvana Unplugged was elevated to legendary status when Kurt died 4 months after it aired. Metallica is coming out of a five year hiatus with their 9th album in 2008.
– Covers and acoustic tones were a new and different thing for Nirvana, while Metallica has a cover album (Garage, Inc.) and lighter songs like Nothing Else Matters.
– Kurt’s mode of presentation of his setlist eased the audience into his rationale. Metallica played each song with little intorduction- at one point saying ‘this is a harder one’, and then it still wasn’t a Metallica track.
– Nirvana’s cover songs were peppered into the setlist, while Metallica started with four covers before going into their own material.
– The acoustic environment highlighted Kurt’s singing voice, where many hadn’t ever realized it before in its normal presentation, while Hetfield’s voice incite comments such as ‘his voice is back’ (as in, it sounds as good as it did in the nineties).
-Nirvana’s selection of covers were either admired or obscure artists to their fanbase, while Metallica’s covers were more mainstream, odd fits (the previous night’s Bridge School performance featured Garbage’s I’m Only Happy When it Rains).

Seeing a band unplugged is a special thing- a stripped down version of a song can reveal elements that would have otherwise remained concealed. When the unplugged band is metal, or punk, or some genre that is not a natural transition to acoustic, the construction of the set must be handled with great care. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set should serve as an example to be followed.

Nirvana- Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Nirvana- Plateau

Metallica- I Just Want to Celebrate

Metallica- Unforgiven


  1. Did you catch at about 1:00 on the Plateau Nirvana clip, Kurt says to an audience member, “Oh, did you want us to play NIN songs?”

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