Patrons navigated slowly in the darkened room of Trees, pockets of light reflecting off the floor guiding a path to the smoking section. The back glow coming from the TV above the bar was a beacon for someone looking to get a buzz. “Violet” by Hole and “Where is My Mind” from the Pixies blasted through the overhead speakers as the slightly parted red curtain on stage gave a glimpse of instruments being tuned. The Hole song was either perfectly appropriate or inappropriate depending on your feelings, as the crowd gathered to celebrate the night Nirvana played Trees.
On Oct. 19, 1991, Nirvana was booked to perform at Trees less than a month after their album Nevermind propelled the trio into rock god status. After stage-diving into the crowd during the song “Love Buzz,” Kurt Cobain hit Turner Van Blarcum, a bouncer and last-minute security guard keeping the audience members away from the stage, in the head with his guitar. Once Van Blarcum was able to safely retrieve the crowd-surfing front man from the sea of hands, he welcomed Cobain back on stage with a retaliatory punch to the face. It’s a night that’s taken on legendary status, and so for the last three years The Nirvana Experience, a Nirvana cover band, performs on the same stage on the same date.
Even though weather invited it, there were few flannels or impossibly long sweaters draped over the concert-goers, but a few did go the extra mile to dress the part. The crowd wasn’t completely gray hairs and laugh lines taking part in an interactive time capsule; the rotating lights from the ceiling ran across young faces, as well.
The tight cluster of bodies near the stage were already warmed up by the Soundgarden tribute band, Rusted Cage. Talking, drinking, balancing themselves in the arms of the loved one held next to them, they were primed to cheer when the curtains opened to The Nirvana Experience.
The Nirvana Experience did a fine job of servicing the audience’s readiness for a Nirvana — well, experience. Not all the notes hit vocally, but it’s an immense task to fill Cobain’s Converse shoes. There was always an intangible with Cobain that made him often copied but never replaced, the mystique, the pain, the anger that was present in his performance, but the crowd didn’t mind. Any attempt of the lead singer’s to replicate the growl-y Cobain voice at the detriment of his range, the crowd provided a backup harmony to fill the room with the lyrics.
And when it worked, it worked well. The Nirvana Experience did a fantastic job with songs like “Heart Shaped Box,” and “Dumb" was as close to hearing the song as if you'd chance to hear the original trio perform it. In the end, there’s no real reason to beat up on a tribute band for not being the original. It’s the presence of what it represents, a surrogate for an experience you want to be able to relive or have for the first time. To pay respect to a moment of Dallas musical history.
Things have changed. The cloud of cigarette smoke that would hang in an almost threatening manner above was replaced by eruptions of vape mist. Phones held up in zigzag patterns so as to not catch the other in recordings were a hell of a lot easier to transport than the rig needed in '91 to zoom in on the stage. Twenty-seven years have passed, and the inspiration for two of the three tribute bands that played Friday night had laid their front men to rest, both to suicide. (The other a Foo Fighters group, the Fool Fighters.) Much was different, but that feeling, the effect that music had on the generation of youth coming into adulthood in the early '90s, didn’t change.
There’s a generation heading into the workforce right now that feel they have an un-winnable, uphill battle trying to make successes of themselves. A generation that questions what even constitutes being a success and whether it's worth the struggle. Three decades later, and music that tells you to question a lifestyle you were sold on would seem visionary if it hadn't been written and performed before they were ever conceived.
A baby mosh pit broke out later during The Nirvana Experience’s set, but it could never be mistaken for the nose-breaking, bone-cracking circles of rage that came before. The mosh pit, tame, but with its heart in the right place, seemed like a good metaphor for the night. Some things can never be the same, but it’s worth taking the effort to remember them.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.