When Nirvana rocked Akron: 'The Barney Concert'

Audio recordings of the Nirvana concert on Halloween in 1993 start off with the chatter of attendees who wait eagerly for band members to take the stage.

Moments pass. Small talk continues. About beer, the opening acts, grunge rock, Nirvana song titles.

Suddenly, the lull and mood shift to rapt anticipation with whistles, applause and robust cheers at James A. Rhodes Arena at the University of Akron. Stepping out of darkness and beneath the lights, Nirvana appeared − but it wasn't what the crowd was expecting.

Fans laughed and clapped as they witnessed the odd pairing of Barney the dinosaur and Slash of Guns N' Roses waging a blistering guitar duel to the exuberant delight of about 5,000 fans.

In the spirit of Halloween, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was dressed as Barney and second guitarist Pat Smear was the top hat-clad, curly-maned Slash. Completing the ensemble were Dave Grohl, wrapped as a mummy behind the drum kit, and bassist Krist Novoselic, costumed as the opposite of actor Ted Danson, who had stirred controversy at the time for having worn blackface at a celebrity roast of Whoopi Goldberg.

It was Oct. 31, 1993. Nirvana's final Ohio appearance before Cobain's death five months later.

A stew of distortion, feedback and decibel-scaling whines were coaxed from the guitars.

Several minutes of hijinks ensued before the band ripped into a flamethrower of a song, the sardonically-titled, "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter."

Cobain's slight frame and ragged blond hair were hidden within the bulk of the purple-and-green reptile regalia, the outfit allowing for his fingers to roam free over the guitar strings and to thrum power chords.

From Barney's mouth exploded Cobain's signature rasp as he barked vocals and howled the chorus urgently: "What is wrong with me? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with me?"

Nirvana had performed in Detroit and Dayton the previous two nights before traveling to Akron on a day when four inches of wet snow blanketed the area.

The band, and its most visible member, arrived on campus as the unbidden torchbearers of the grunge rock phenomenon that was dominating music videos, album sales charts and pervading youth culture stylistically with its image of flannel, tattered jeans, disheveled hair and Dr. Martens boots.

A media frenzy also portrayed the genre's core audience as an army of disenfranchised teens and young adults.

But for those who were at the Akron concert, it was a unique moment in time, and when stripped of the media hype and the assigned cultural significance, what's remembered most is a celebratory, fiercely-energetic atmosphere.

"You could feel Kurt's presence fill the entire large arena," said Jennifer Shipman, a college student at the time who was dressed for Halloween as a cat in grunge clothing. "He had a big presence. The whole band killed it — but Kurt was special. The energy lasted the whole way through and all who were there with me carried his energy along with us for days and weeks after."

'Real big show'

Capturing the show's essence was Dan Kane, of The Canton Repository, who in his review described the fans in the mosh pit as "pressing near the stage in an undulating carpet of energy from the first blast of feedback onward."

Among those at ground zero was Derrick Bostrom, drummer of the Meat Puppets, one of two opening bands and stalwarts of the alternative and indie music scene of the era.

"Obviously, what I remember most about the show is how ... damn big they were," he said of Nirvana's popularity. "It was a real big show and it was like, 'How did they find all these people who like this kind of music and fit them into one place?'"

Akron was the band's inaugural tour date with Nirvana. Eager to witness the musical juggernaut up close, Bostrom joined common fans on the floor near the stage.

"It was the first Nirvana show I had ever seen and it was a huge show and I wanted to participate in what was happening."

'Tension between opposites'

One or two songs had elapsed before Cobain disrobed from the Barney costume. Underneath he was attired in rumpled thrift-store fashion. Golden locks uncombed. Guitar strapped around his neck. Grohl, meanwhile, implored road crew members to cut him free from the mummy outfit.

This was all in stark contrast to Cobain's reputation for dark, brooding lyrics, a glimpse into the band's playful side.

Though he wasn't at the Akron concert and is only vaguely familiar with it, Danny Goldberg, Nirvana's former manager, said the Halloween shtick illustrated what he described as a "tension between opposites that was so much a part of Kurt's art form."

"Humor was always part of the original kind of identity of Nirvana when they were starting, and (Cobain) was really looking to recapture that on that tour," said Goldberg, author of the book, "Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain." "He was really trying to find the humor that was part of Nirvana at a time when there was all this kind of pressure about being one of the biggest bands in the world and the follow-up to 'Nevermind' and everything like that."

"His sense of humor is a constant theme," he added. "Obviously, he had a dark side, he had demons and he had sort of the punk rock hostility towards a lot of establishment ideas and culture, but a lot of how he dealt with it was always with humor."

The Halloween concert is "certainly in keeping with who he was and a side of him that has become less remembered because his suicide was so sad, and after that, a lot of the journalists focused on the dark side of it.

"But the reality of Nirvana was it was a study of contrasts and one of the contrasts was humor."

Stressed and overwhelmed

In his brief interactions with Cobain backstage, the Meat Puppets' percussionist said he saw the noticeably more somber side of the singer.

"It was obvious from those four dates we did with Nirvana that Kurt Cobain was not in great shape," Bostrom recalled. "He was stressed and he was not feeling well and he was overwhelmed.

"The other (members of Nirvana) seemed to be a lot more footloose and fancy-free."

So when he saw Cobain's costume, Bostrom thought, "Wow, that guy has a sense of humor, who knew?"

Why Akron?

So how did Nirvana end up playing in Akron, on a commuter-dominated campus and in a 5,500-seat venue primarily used for basketball and formally known as the James A. Rhodes Health and Physical Education Building?

Just over a year earlier, following the chart-topping and landmark album, "Nevermind," and the colossal, game-changing hit single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana had headlined the final day of the Reading Festival in England before 60,000 fans.

"I think it varied from city to city where they were going to play," explained Goldberg, a former high-ranking record company executive and current president of the New York City-based Gold Village Entertainment. "Nirvana had a pretty short career. They were really only a headliner for two cycles, the time after 'Nevermind' and the time after 'In Utero.'

"They didn't really become a big arena act," he added. "They were certainly on a trajectory to do that. They played stadiums in Latin America and didn't love it ... but (the University of Akron) was probably the kind of place they were playing on that tour."

For Bostrom, other concerts with Nirvana and later the Stone Temple Pilots blur together, indistinguishable from arena to arena.

Not the Akron show. An uptick of excitement inflected his voice when flashing back to that moment of a quarter-century ago.

"I remember getting to that show," Bostrom said. "I remember seeing their bus. I remember walking around inside, and their drummer came up to me and he had lollipops for each of us to welcome us to their tour."

Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, and their 1-year-old daughter were also at the concert, Bostrom recounted.

"I'm not a big hanger-out backstage ... (but) I remember saying hello to Courtney, and I remember saying, 'You have such a beautiful daughter,' and (Love) just looks at me like, 'Who the (expletive) are you?'"

'Festive atmosphere'

A humorous tenor was sprinkled throughout the 21-song set, a blend of recognizable hits, newer material and deeper cuts, including: "Come As You Are," "In Bloom," "Lithium," "Heart-Shaped Box," "Polly," "Rape Me," "All Apologies," "Drain You" and "Serve the Servants."

Every moment and every wisecrack are preserved in audio recordings posted on YouTube.

Cobain asked how many in the audience had attended a Devo concert, the quirky '80s rock act hailing from the Akron area. Most curious was his urinating in a shoe that had been chucked on stage, the projectile nailing him square in the jaw, after it apparently had been lost by a fan who was crowd surfing.

"Nirvana was having fun on stage, "Bostrom said. "Whatever pressures they may have felt offstage didn't show in their performance. Fun is the main criterion. The rest doesn't really matter. They were definitely up for the show, which exuded a festive atmosphere."

Shipman, the former University of Akron student, considers the Nirvana concert among the best she's witnessed in her lifetime.

"That is one of the few concerts that impacted me creatively," the bassist and guitarist said of the influence on her own music. "And it also solidified my fandom for (Nirvana) because seeing them live was 100 times more powerful than listening to their studio recordings."

As the night waned, the band's future appeared boundless, Cobain's career path still evolving, although his heroin addiction and struggles coping with fame had been widely reported in the press.

Eighteen days later, Nirvana would record its highly-acclaimed "Unplugged in New York" performance for MTV.

Nirvana continued its tour before the European leg was ended prematurely, and on April 8, 1994, Cobain was found in a room above a garage at his Seattle home dead of a self-inflicted shotgun blast.

'They were coming to us'

Nearly three decades later, the musical legacy of Cobain endures in the audio recording, the Akron concert ending as it began, squalling, tortured guitars echoing throughout the 129,500-square-foot arena, the cacophony so resounding that Kane, of the Repository, penned in his review that his ears were still ringing the next morning.

Memories of the concert still resonate for Josh Epstein, who had reviewed the show as an entertainment writer for the campus newspaper, The Buchtelite.

"They were at the University of Akron," he said. "It was like they were coming to us as opposed to us coming to them.

"It was a big deal because I really loved Nirvana and I loved the whole grunge scene."

During moments of a phone interview, the New York resident strained to conjure imagery of the concert, pausing reflectively.

Other times, details rushed forth with precision, the 48-year-old Epstein recounting where he was positioned on the floor near the stage, in the vicinity of Cobain.

"There was definitely an intimacy to it," he said. "It wasn't like a club show and it was still an arena show but a small arena show. Standing close was great.

"It was just a good, fun concert. You don't usually see a band that big at that moment in their career."

Reach Ed at 330-580-8315

and ed.balint@cantonrep.com

On Twitter @ebalintREP

This article originally appeared on The Repository: When Nirvana rocked Akron: 'The Barney Concert'