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The lights went down. From the buzzing P.A. system a voice requested, "Won't you please welcome Nirvana!" The band ambled out onto the stage 15 minutes later. After the usual tuning of guitars and pounding of drum heads, Kurt Cobain leaned over the microphone stand, strummed the opening chords and drew in his first breath.

From the start of last week's show at After the Gold Rush, it was clear that the evening would not offer vintage Nirvana. Suffering from the effects of too many one-nighters, vocalist-guitarist Kurt Cobain could muster only a ragged shred of his normal shriek. And although drummer David Grohl was producing a maximum amount of noise out of his minimal kit, he never achieved the kind of thundering frenzy grunge music needs to fly.

With his bass slung at knee height, Chris Novoselic seemed the most alive of the three. He was also the only one to talk from the stage--at one point recalling a past gig at the Sun Club, where the group played to ten people. These days, Nirvana is probably wishing it were back playing to such crowds. In the space of three weeks, the group has gone from a left-of-punk trio known primarily for its cool tee shirts to the hottest band in America. Fueled by the hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the band's major-label debut Nevermind sold more than 75,000 copies in its first week of release. Radio has also fallen in love with "Teen Spirit." So has the music press; in late September, the band was deluged with 90 interview requests in ten days. Through it all, the group has been on the road grinding it out. The question now for Nirvana is not "What's next?" but "What's left?"

Northwestern bands in general have a reason to be tired these days. During the past year, they have been the object of a major-label feeding frenzy the likes of which hasn't been seen since white people started buying hip-hop records. When the dust settled, all of the Seattle scene's grunge elite were on major labels. Now contentedly stretched out on sunny California shores, Soundgarden, Nirvana and the rest of their ilk are taking money from the big business that used to fire their wrath. This southern migration has taken the wind out of Seattle's musical sails. When the Sub Pop label's mighty roster went south, some of rock 'n' roll's most creative juices went with it.

The major-label debuts of Seattle-scene bands have all been "events," but none has come close to producing the shock waves that erupted from Nirvana's Nevermind and its anthemic hit. In this show, however, Nirvana waited until the fifth tune to play "Teen Spirit." Predictably, the song's opening strains lighted up the mosh pit and satisfied the rest of the anxious crowd.

Despite its fatigue, the band's quirky personality did manage to peek through. After a slow start, Nirvana got into a groove and rocked out. Although it took the group longer to rise to the top than some of its grunge mates, it's clear, even from the little bit of energy the band generated in Tempe, that Nirvana is one of the most talented groups to emerge from Puget Sound. More than just their breakthrough record, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a good example of the strange way the Seattle grunge scene has evolved. The genre is a musical aberration for which there is no easy definition. Grungesters Blood Circus describe it aesthetically as "shitty guitars played very loud," while Soundgarden explains it in economic terms: "Sub Pop's marketing plan for world domination."

But in almost every case, a pop tune, not a deafening slam, won each grunge band its fame. For Nirvana, entry to the big time came with the easily hummed choruses of the alternately stoked and steamy "Teen Spirit." It's doubly ironic that the tune rages against superficiality. On October 23, after Nirvana finished "Teen Spirit," both the crowd and the band kicked the energy level up a few notches. Nirvana mixed both old and new tunes in what turned out to be a short, semi-inspired set. Of course, it's unreasonable to expect the trio to play like it does on its record. Butch Vig, the producer of Nevermind, gave that disc a richness Nirvana will never be able to reproduce onstage. The group could, however, have played an encore. The biggest letdown of the evening was how it ended. After the last song of the short set, drummer Grohl came to the edge of the stage and poured his jug of bottled water onto the eager, front-row faces. Attitude has always been grunge music's most hazardous waste.

As openers, neither Sister Double Happiness nor B. Strange was particularly distinguished. Once a promising punk-alternative cross, San Francisco's Sister Double Happiness is now trying to fashion a retro style. But the group came off stale and uninspired, stuck between Big Brother and the Holding Company and the first Bad Company record. Local boys B. Strange performed their metal-funk mix with fewer gymnastics than usual. Although the group is made up of good musicians and seems to possess potential, its material needs work.--

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Robert Baird