I’ve wanted to see Nine Inch Nails since I was 15 years old, when my cool goth older brother and his beautiful goth girlfriend came back from seeing Trent and Co. at Portland’s Rose Garden with a T-shirt so obscene that my parents — who literally forbid us from nothing as kids — told him he could never wear it. My brother told me it was the loudest concert he had ever been to.
So, flash forward 17 years: I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see Nine Inch Nails, but never have. And after last night I have never regretted past decisions I’ve made so much.
First, let me back up: It has been ages since I’ve seen a concert in an Arena setting. And inside my head, I had pictured all of these secret Spokane industrial/goth people in platform boots and trench coats and latex pants would crawl out of their underground lairs for the show. Yeah, that didn’t happen. My seats were surrounded by a group of people in Montana football sweatshirts who acted like they’d be tailgating for hours, and who emanated that special odor of whiskey mixing with stomach acid. I was surprised to see the number of people carrying giant bags of cotton candy to their seats. AND I was also cracking up at the number of people wearing Nine Inch Nails shirts to the show. Is that not a faux pas anymore?
Before Nine Inch Nails took to the stage, Austin's instrumental post-rock band Explosions in the Sky played first. I’m a massive fan of instrumental music — especially when it’s loud — but I’ve never been a huge fan of EitS, and last night certainly didn’t convert me. Shrouded in a canopy of blue and red lights, the band did what they do, jammed. They’re really a perfect band for movie and TV soundtracks (which they did masterfully with the Friday Night Lights). And it takes a lot for me to say this, but I’d really rather watch scenes of football players slamming their skulls together with this music in the background than to have to watch Explosions in the Sky play live again. I’ll hand it to them: their set was short and sweet and delivered without any BS fanfare. They did their thing and made way for Nine Inch Nails.
OK, so here’s where I want to amend something I said earlier this week in my preview piece of this show. First, I think I should apologize to Trent Reznor for calling him “Mr. Happy” (or, at least that’s what the headline of my story called him). I think it oversimplifies what sort of progress he’s made with Nine Inch Nails, and especially with the new album Hesitation Marks. It’s a great album, and it does sound good on headphones. But it’s almost like you need to hear it performed live in order to really understand the impact, power and mastery behind it. It’s like the difference between watching the Food Network and hearing people describe how food tastes, and actually eating it yourself. Completely different experience.
To say that Trent Reznor makes an entrance on stage is understating things. As his band played the first notes of “Copy of A," Reznor marched out of a thick cloud of fog and up to the mic, and was met with an arena full of screams. He was tinier than I thought he would be, and he had some kind of weird parachute pant thing happening that definitely didn’t make him look any taller.
In fact, nearly everything was different about Reznor than I had thought. I’ve seen videos of him verbally destroying idiot audience members and trashing his instruments. But his onstage persona has shifted. Last night he was The Hulk: hunching over the mic, backing up to do this muscle-y sort of man-dance. He was absolutely serious about every single one of these songs, like presenting them to an audience is an emotionally taxing experience. At times he’d back away from the mic and bury his face in his hands, or even stare up into the lights. It was as if he was even glad to get all of this off his chest and show us the inside of his heart.
For the next couple of hours, the band played 24 songs. Twenty four! These aren’t short, easy songs either, guys. These are long, emotion-packed songs. The band played literally everything (well, except “Closer” — which I was happy to not hear live amongst the boozy football people I was sitting by): more than half of the songs from Hesitation Marks, “Head Like a Hole,” “Terrible Lie,” “Sanctified” from Pretty Hate Machine, “Piggy,” “March of the Pigs,” “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral. There were tracks from The Fragile, even a nod to Year Zero.
And while everything about the band’s sound was on-the-nuts perfect, Nine Inch Nails transports their audience with an out-of-this-universe light show unlike anything I have ever seen. I felt like I was in a goddamn spaceship. I could describe this experience further for you, but then that would sort of feel like my Food Network reference above. All you need to know is this: whatever money you think you don’t have to spend on Nine Inch Nails tickets, you do — if for the light show alone.
During the band’s performance of “Head Like a Hole,” Reznor looked out over the crowd as he sang “Bow down before the one you serve…” and raised his hands high above his head. The entire Arena crowd, bathed in bright white lights, was absolute putty in his hands. Including me. I’m glad I waited a long time to see Nine Inch Nails. Otherwise, any younger, any more immature, I think I might have just cried tears of joy through the entire show.