Live Review: Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden at Aaron’s Amphitheatre

A friend of mine once told a funny story, a through-the-grapevine anecdote about someone’s mom running into a mohawked Trent Reznor at the neighborhood Kroger or whatever and a bashful Rez explaining that the hairdo was “for the kids.”

These days, Reznor’s fashion choices are honestly pretty MOR for a man who penned the lyric “hard line bad luck fist fuck—shorts, muscle shirts, the occasional tasteful bit of leather—and his audience is no longer so much “the kids,” but rather those kids who grew up with his shut-in anti-anthems, kids now pushing 30, 40 years old but still eager to fist-pump along with steadfastly antisocial tunes like “Gave Up.”

(A sidenote here: Witnessed live, it’s clear there is and has always been a winking irony to some of NIN’s most famously nihilistic material, though whether the majority of Reznor’s crowd is or has always been winking along with him is another question.)

The set served as a reminder that Reznor has embraced electronic music more explicitly than most of his aging alt-rock peers. The front end was full of beat-heavy tunes from last year’s mostly excellent Hesitation Marks, and though the crowd did its best to groove along, there was a restlessness in the air, which finally abated when the band launched into “March of the Pigs,” the punk-industrial centerpiece of the 20-year-old The Downward Spiral.

But Reznor was programming beats before Skrillex was out of Pampers, and his biggest hit to date is a minimalist electro jam that still rules rock radio. He has also invited artists like Oneohtrix Point Never to remix his material and even brought 0PN’s Daniel Lopatin along to open several dates on the current tour.

That is to say, it rarely feels forced. Reznor brings a beautiful brutality (beautality?) to his most overtly computerized material; even the questionable extended EDM outro to “The Great Destroyer” is a show-stopper live. (The incredible accompanying light show didn’t hurt.)

Also: “Wish” was played.

Co-headliners Soundgarden haven’t undergone quite the same creative evolution over the years, and the most cynical might argue that their existence in 2014—the 20th anniversary of their own best-seller—is nothing more than an attempt to translate past fame into present winnings.

But damn if Chris Cornell and company don’t sound as good as they ever did in 1994. Though the band started in hazy daylight, by the time Soundgarden reached FM staple “Fell On Black Days” and continued into the one-two punch of all-time barn-burner “Rusty Cage” and epic closer “Beyond the Wheel” (which Cornell admitted “seems a little naive now, lyrically”)  the sun had long fallen and the detuned rock-and-roll vibe was in full force.

It became, in effect, a sort of party. The band threw its entire muscle into the greatest-hits setlist and the crowd responded in kind, fists in the air and strained voices in the wind. But the unexpected highlight came at the very end, when guitarist Kim Thayil, clad in a SunnO))) shirt and trademark porkpie hat, unleashed a sustained and staggering burst of feedback drone that I never wanted to stop.


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