In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I love Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor could read a phone book (if he could find one) in front of a blank sheet for an hour and a half and I would find it fascinating. That out of the way, I recently saw the Soundgarden – Nine Inch Nails tour. And since I geeked about it, I must now speak about it.
The location for the show was the Gexa Energy Pavillion, a semi-outdoor venue that is basically a fenced in field with concession stands, a paved courtyard, a big grass area and a roof over a stage and seats. The stage areas has walls on three sides but randomly enough, the open side faces due West. I mention this navigational point only because designing it that way was a questionable decision at best. Given that most of what goes on at Gexa are concerts and other forms of entertainment that start in the late afternoon or night, in the summer, in Texas, there is generally long time while the sun is setting, it just shines directly on the stage and into the eyes of the performers.
Perhaps that is why the opening band, Cold Cave, wore sunglasses for the duration of the half hour set they played to start the show. To most people, Cold Cave probably looks like what they think Nine Inch Nails is. A man and a woman, both wearing dark clothes and too much leather for a Texas summer with two synthesizers, a microphone and a giant electronic screen behind them. They’re also the kind of electronic group that seems like they actually just need to press one button on their synthesizers at the beginning of their whole set and walk away rather than playing them or any other instruments. Nonetheless, the music was good, especially if you’re into electronic music, with compelling beats and some interesting sounds. It also had a serious 80’s vibe and sounded not a little like an updated version of the Cure. The screen behind the group displayed standard scenes like a swirling flock of birds, waves lapping the shore and just static, all in black and white, of course. Because that’s more artistic.
By the time Soundgarden took the stage, the sun had gone down behind the fence and they performed in a slowly deepening twilight which meant that their light show actually mattered and it was easier to see what was on their screen. Not that it mattered much since those images were just standard abstract rock symbolism. I’ve come late to Soundgarden. My grunge bands of choice were Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots and I knew no more about the band when they were in their heyday than anyone else who caught them on the radio and MTV. I was, however, a fan of Audioslave, so I am suitably amazed and impressed by Chris Cornell’s ability to wail and “The Day I Tried to Live” catches in my head regularly. I’ve also been picking up more of their albums now. These factors combined made me the perfect audience for the show Soundgarden put on. I suspect that there is little difference between the show that I saw recently and a show they would have performed 15 years ago.
While there were a couple of songs I didn’t recognize which I assume are from the new album they put out since reuniting after Audioslave, otherwise, it was all their hits from the 90’s. Just as Cold Cave being a prototypical electronic band is not a complaint, saying Soundgarden played just the show I expected isn’t a complaint. There’s nothing worse than going to a concert, especially of a band you like but aren’t a huge fan of and the stupid band NOT playing their hits because they’re tired of them or out of some sort of artistic ideal. A couple of things of note about the Soundgarden show. As previously mentioned, Chris Cornell is an amazing singer and even more amazing because he seems to do it all effortlessly. When he’s hitting those notes that seem like they should be ripping out his throat, if not his soul, he can do so standing or sitting casually. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a concert where the band does crowd work so I thought it was weird how much he talked between songs, but it was probably an average amount. Kim Thayil, the guitar player looks totally different with a shorter beard and still seems to take joy, if rather casual joy in playing. Matt Cameron, the drummer holds his sticks the way you’re supposed to, i.e. the right held like a knife the left like a pencil and plays with a passion. And finally, Ben Shepherd, the bass player did the rare back up singing that needed to be done and seemed the most angry and bitter, which makes him the most rock and roll. Oh, and Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil switched guitars a lot.
Between Cold Cave and Soundgarden’s sets, a curtain was put down to hide the stage. I’m not entirely sure why anyone thought this was a necessary precaution. The only difference I could see was that Cold Cave’s synthesizers and screens were removed and Soundgarden’s drums and screen were put up. Not exactly a top secret transformation. Between Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails, though, there was nothing hiding the stage as it was set up. This largely involved the crew removing everything from the stage, including many of the lights hanging above it.
When they started adding things back, there was a point where there was nothing on the stage but a microphone, a small synthesizer and a stand lamp with a bare bulb shining. Just as I was joking to my friend that they were going with a minimalist set design and that’s all it was going to be Trent Reznor walked out on the stage and STARTED HIS MONKEY FLANKING SET. The houselights were still up. There wasn’t anyone else on stage. There was no announcement. One moment we were waiting, the next the concert was in full swing. It felt not a little like he’d just gotten tired of waiting for the set up and the music had built up in him to a point where he just had to let it out. It was strangely startling and for a while, I thought it was possible that he actually was going to go minimalist and that there really wasn’t going to be anything else on the stage and that he was going to perform the whole concert alone. That would have been ok by me and it didn’t really matter since I pretty much lost control of my body and mind for the next hour and a half.
The opening song was “Copy of A” one of the tracks from the new album, Hesitation Marks. Like so many Nine Inch Nails songs, it is one that starts relatively simply and then grows steadily in complexity. As the song grew denser so did the stage and Nine Inch Nails. As each additional instrument became needed for the song, another performer would come out with that instrument and the trappings of the stage built up until the full 4 members and all the set pieces were on stage. Even once everything was in place, there was still something Spartan about the decorations. These consisted mostly of a number of large, flat panels that appeared plain at first. Of course, this was deceptive and the panels were actually computer controlled screens which could display any number of things.
And these screens were put to any number of uses, from just displaying interesting visuals, not unlike though more compelling than either Cold Cave or Soundgarden’s images, to serving as actual barriers to hide members of the band. One of the best and simplest effects was in Copy of A, when they simply had spot lights trained on them with the band members in front of them. This cast the band in silhouette on the screens. These silhouettes were then toyed with by the simple expedient of moving the screens closer or further away, making the shadows man sized or huge or both when combined with the white backdrop that hung behind the stage. But more interesting was later in the show when the screens performed the reverse effect. The screens were all black and the band’s silhouettes were displayed on the screens in bright white in real time. An effect that obviously required the use of a computer. It was such a subtle shift that it took a while to realize what was happening instead of just of my brain just normalizing it as a standard silhouette.
Although the screens were obviously complex electronic devices controlled by a bank of laptops, Trent Reznor proved that he does not use technology for technology’s sake. The panels were not on tracks or motorized, their movements were not controlled by the computers that were controlling what was projected on them. Instead, they were maneuvered around the stage the old fashioned way by humble roadies. For that matter, an analog solution, usually a roadie, was used whenever it would be more appropriate or more effective. For example, for one song, Reznor was illuminated from below by a single spotlight. Again, instead of having some sort of computer controlled mechanism guiding the light, it was just being held by a guy kneeling next to him. This was in sharp contrast to the Beyonce/Jay-Z concert I went to not long ago that included among other extravagancies, an overhead camera that was used exactly one time. Over all, the Nine Inch Nails set was always somewhat minimalist though it was used with elegant creativity.
And, of course, the music was just as good about using the appropriate tool for the appropriate effect. This applied even to Reznor and his fellow musicians. As part of the efficiency in place, every one of them played at least 2 different instruments at one point or another and switched instruments often. At the risk of waxing too poetic, Nine Inch Nails is the music of my soul and every song they played was spectacular. They played 17 songs and with a catalog of 7 LP’s and an EP, there was no way for the group to hit everyone’s favorite, though they performed all the greatest hits, such as they are. Still, they had a good mix of the stuff that happened to get on the radio like Closer and Hurt and deeper cuts like the Great Destroyer as well as some tracks from the newest album. And, of course, they had to play Head Like a Hole. I suspect that there has not been a Nine Inch Nails concert since that song came out that did not include that song.
While the version of Head Like a Hole was pretty standard, the version of Sanctified, a song that has probably been played by the band almost as often, was nicely altered and fresh. It had an almost Caribbean vibe running through the normal electronic beats and sounds. It was just another example of the group taking something simple and turning it into something new and great.
And, of course, as much as I love to hear it, I was sad when Hurt started.
The tour is almost over now, but if it’s coming to your town, it’s worth seeing. Even if you don’t get a chance to see the concert, go out and buy some Nine Inch Nails albums or songs. They’re definitely worth owning.