Minds. Blown. That’s how The Spin felt more times than we can remember at last night’s Nine Inch Nails show at Bridgestone Arena, one of the most visually stunning spectacles we’ve ever seen. We’re talking, like, the shit for-real rivaled U2 at Vandy. Near main set’s end, as the band charged through its biggest post-Y2K hit “The Hand That Feeds,” there was one moment in particular we’re still trying to wrap our brains around a day later. During the song, radioactive-looking neon silhouettes of Trent Reznor and his electro-rock foot soldiers started flickering for split seconds at a time than disappearing to reveal the real band members, back-lit and obscured by a transparent screen of digital mesh at the lip of the stage. Fucking holograms, y’all!
On a more disappointing note, however, we were really expecting some better people-watching on Tuesday night. But to our shock and chagrin, it wasn’t the colorful proto-Hot Topic, alt-hesh gathering of the goths we were counting on for fish-in-barrel mockable Spin fodder. Has the goth subculture died under our noses? Did the goths all grow up and go square? Or were the ones still fighting conformist oppressors and living off the grid simply priced out of the show?
Sure, we did see a handful of concertgoers test driving their 2013 Halloween costumes (check out our slideshow to see Jesus dressed as a pope) along with the random aging tattoo-artist types and be-face-painted freaks waiting in line for soft pretzels, popcorn and over-priced beer ($11, CHRIST!!). But for the most part, last night’s crowd looked like fairly upstanding, curious, clean-cut, gainfully employed rock fans (we were even seated next to a pregnant — like, very pregnant — lady). Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of them there last night to fill even the lower bowl of Bridgestone Arena — ‘twas an even worse turnout than we saw two years ago at pseudo-Guns N’ Roses. Call it Queens of the Stone Age Syndrome perhaps. (Notably, QOTSA opened NIN’s 2005 stop at the arena.)
Though not by, say, Elton John or Cher standards, this was a pricey rock show, with most seats running around $100 or more and nosebleeds going for 40 bucks and change. Certainly, if Live Nation had sold seats up in the 300s for $20 a pop, or maybe even by Groupon, the upper deck would’ve been filled with a few thousand more fans instead of being curtained off completely. That would’ve made it feel more like a Nine Inch Nails show from the band’s ’90s heyday. But really, last night’s heady, hypnotic show was a much different animal than the slam-pit-inspiring, blood-and-guts electro-Goth spectacles of the Downward Spiral days.
What has Trent Reznor become?
If Nine Inch Nails’ fearless bandleader/benevolent dictator has done one thing exceedingly well while easing into the third decade of his career, it’s figuring out how to age gracefully. The narrative surrounding NIN’s latest album — the not-so-angsty (despite its attempted-suicide-referencing name), neo-Kraut chill-pill Hesitation Marks — is all about how Reznor, 48, unburdened himself of the petulant, unbridled angst defining much of his catalog and delved headlong into life as a mature, Academy Award-winning artiste.
The show was consistent with that sentiment, yet included enough visceral angst to satisfy nostalgia seekers and more block-headed concertgoers (like us) with industrial fan favorites and alt-rock radio staples (a la the now-24-year-old 120 Minutes hit “Head Like a Hole”). During fan faves like the abrasive The Fragile standout “Somewhat Damaged,” Reznor appeared confined, rat-in-a-cage style, bathed in a box of blue lighting; during the bouncy Joy Division homage “Sanctified,” uber-bassist Pino Palladino did his finest Peter Hook; and the grinding, buzzing rodeo gallop of “Wish” was, per tradition, cued to enough retna-gouging flashing strobes to inspire epileptic seizures. But those big moments were like little doggy treats Reznor used to reward fans for their patience.
An early-in-set run of NIN standards — the forsaken-by-God, clubby goth classic “Terrible Lie” into a fast-and-furious “March of the Pigs” and rounded out by a moody, to-drum-solo-crescendo-ing “Piggy” — played like Reznor’s way of getting our undivided attention and seducing us into a richer presentation that leaned heavily of Hesitation Marks selections (10 songs in total).
Often backlit and blending in with his work-for-hire bandmates, Reznor — once the dark, brooding, volatile rock god in the spotlight, seething with anger and oozing subversive sexuality — minimized his role as frontman. Keeping his gestures subtle, Reznor let the music do the talking and left the devastating, shape-shifting production to dazzle at center stage during a show that was all about atmosphere and, save for some lasers, was light on arena-rock antics. Except for the occasional post-applause, sincerely spoken “Thank you, thank you very much” and brief band introductions (members included longtime NIN vets guitarist Robin Finck, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini, wunderkind drummer Ilan Rubin and longtime Rolling Stones backup vocalist Lisa Fischer) last night’s was a banter-free performance, with Reznor relying on the strength of his sonically intact iconic rasp to communicate as he writhed and rocked out in the shadows.
During the sonic peaks of Hesitation’s “Came Back Haunted,” what looked like a three-dimensional paint-splattering of primary colors washed over the band and pulsed across a cage of screens besieging the stage. During the more minimal “Find My Way,” a watery, blue digital mist grew over the stage with every added musical layer and nuance. The creepier “Running” showed the band playing amid tidal waves of data mosh and visual static. In the encore, during the jazzy (sax solo and all) “While I’m Still Here” and “Black Noise,” little halos of asymmetrically moving, low, white lights created a haunting effect before exploding in seeming slow motion to what looked like a living, breathing abstract Van Gogh painting in a techno club.
With each new musical movement came a new vivid visual; a new arrangement of double-sided, see-through LED screens; a different metal grid glowing with strobing lights and sharper color palates, each more striking than the one before. The visuals were so overwhelming that when “Head Like a Hole” climaxed to reveal the vintage NIN block logo on the upper screen, it looked laughably primitive.
The mood shifted from cinematic splendor (as this show was at times more like watching a movie than a band) to raw and intimate when the band predictably (and appropriately) closed with “Hurt.” Certainly no sense of hometown reverence was lost as Reznor crooned the song that Johnny Cash defined (Aretha Franklin's “Respect”-style) in the city that the (original) Man in Black built. That final song provided the show’s first and only collective sing-along moment, and it was oddly uplifting, despite accompanying stock footage (a NIN tradition) of decomposing animal carcasses and Viet Cong soldiers being summarily executed.
By contrast, openers Godspeed! You Black Emperor failed to engage the arriving masses with an out-of-place, post-arena-rock set that was a little too, uh, baroque for Bridgestone Arena. Another sign that Nine Inch Nails have moved far beyond the days of tapping openers like Marilyn Manson, Godspeed! — half of its members sitting down and barely discernable under low lighting — divided its 45-or-so minutes onstage between a pair of instrumental, long, slow-moving droning dirges. Many of the nuances the band’s worshippers hang on were lost, and some looping, David Fincher-esque stock footage running onscreen behind the band didn’t save the set from being a bore, or save us from being totally jealous of cities on this tour that are getting Gary Numan as an opener.