On Wednesday, in a brief, vague video teaser, the immensely popular rap-adjacent superstar Post Malone announced that something called the “Post Malone Nirvana Tribute Livestream” would be happening on his YouTube channel on Friday evening.
Nirvana purists were skeptical. Sure, the 24-year-old born Austin Post has paid homage, or at least lip service, to the rock gods before, breaking through with a catchy smash called “Rockstar” and quickly becoming the go-to guitar-wielding 20-something representing his cohort in feel-good intergenerational awards show performances (with Red Hot Chili Peppers at last year’s Grammys; with Aerosmith at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.)
On the other hand, Post Malone was born a year after Kurt Cobain died, makes narcotically sing-songy tunes and writes lyrics about wearing Versace boxers and 50-carat rings on a superyacht. It was anyone’s guess what that guy’s cover of “Heart-Shaped Box” was going to sound like.
But as it turned out? Surprisingly faithful to the original.
From the moment a contagiously grinning Post Malone walked into the frame and picked from his fleet of guitars, it was clear that he was not merely one of those come-lately fans that Cobain dissed in “In Bloom” — the kind who like to sing along but “don’t know what it means” — but a musician with a deep reverence for the Seattle trio and an intimate familiarity with its catalog. (He was also clad in a tent-like floral dress, just like the ones Cobain sometimes wore in concert — a tenderly observant detail.)
He and his band opened with a pummeling rendition of the “In Utero” album cut “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” featuring a refrain that, for any cynics, drew a clear line from Cobain’s sensibility to Post Malone’s emo-inflected hooks: “I miss the comfort of being sad.”
Plenty of the viewers who tuned into the stream — Post Malone incredulously announced at one point that 200,000 people were watching live — were themselves missing all sorts of comforts, like the experience of hearing live music at earsplitting, soul-cleansing volume. The event raised money for the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund; a button in the corner of the screen encouraged those watching to donate. (The set is available on YouTube here; the banter between songs is peppered with spicy asides that make it less family-friendly.)
But what made Post Malone’s live stream stand out amid the sudden glut of self-recorded quarantine content was, quite simply, how good it sounded, how closely it approximated that now-rare experience of seeing a rock band playing music in front of you really, really loudly. That it was a rock band that had run through these songs only “probably two times” before and was fronted by Post Malone turned out to be shockingly incidental. Rich and jagged, the guitar tones were just right. One got the sense, whether or not he’d admit it, that the “In Utero” engineer Steve Albini may have almost approved.
It certainly helped that Post Malone happened to have the casually virtuosic Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker along the guitarist Nick Mack and the multi-instrumentalist Brian Lee on hand in his sprawling Utah home. (Lee joined Post in wearing a flowery frock; Barker opted for a ripped T-shirt and Hooters booty shorts.) Performing in front of a well-stocked home bar, Post Malone played not just frontman but generous host, frequently checking in with his bandmates to see if anyone needed fresh beers.
They smoked cigarettes voraciously and traded goofy, inside-jokey non sequiturs (“What’s the deal with Applebees right now? I love [expletive] Applebees.”). The whole thing had the endearing air of band practice taking place in the wealthy frontman’s finished basement, while somewhere above there hovered permissive parents who didn’t much care what they did, just so long as they did it in the house.
“Shout out to Courtney Love for watching,” Post Malone said at one point, one of those sentences that would have scanned as a schism in the pop cultural universe two months ago but now feels like one of the more normal things to happen on a given day.
Across their 15-song set, Post Malone touched on all three of Nirvana’s studio albums (including “School” from its debut, “Bleach”) and played all but two of the tracks off the group’s landmark 1991 album “Nevermind.” That they skipped “Smells Like Teen Spirit” speaks again to the purity of the performance’s overall intention — not to pander to easily meme-able, least-common-denominator Nirvana nostalgia but rather to share with a captive audience (here we are now; entertain us) some tunes that he and his buddies just really love playing live.
The set’s sole low point came when the tempo slowed, during a violin-assisted rendition of the solemn “Nevermind” closer “Something in the Way”; unlike Cobain and Co., Post has not yet perfected his “MTV Unplugged” vibe. But that brief departure only put the performances’ strengths — crushing volume, giddy reverence, cathartic shouts — into starker relief.
After a scorched rendition of “Breed,” Post Malone conceded that “this might be the first performance” of his on which he’d used “no Auto-Tune at all.” It wasn’t missed. Post has a strong rock voice — even more impressive and distinct than the artfully processed one heard on his own songs — and was able to toggle fluidly between the melodicism of Nirvana’s quiet moments and the throaty torrents of its choruses. He took particular delight in the incendiary “Stay Away,” a song that means so much to him, he told viewers, that he got its title tattooed on his face.
Post Malone seemed genuinely moved twice during the set — once, when he’d been told that a viewer had donated $65,000, and then when he found out that the Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic was tweeting enthusiastically about the performance. (“I don’t think these fellows can play any better,” Novoselic wrote. “They are on fire!!!!”)
“Krist is watching!” a beaming Post Malone informed his band just before they launched into “In Bloom.” Quipped Lee, to the camera, “I’m so sorry.”