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Nine Inch Nails with The Dresden Dolls at Soma, San Diego – May 30 & 31

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In the spirit of full-disclosure, I should warn you at the outset of this review that I am a huge admirer of the Nine Inch Nails rock show, and am firmly of the belief that objectivity (whatever that means) is a hugely over-rated virtue when it comes to the assessment of works of art. In my opinion, if you don’t love it a little, it’s probably best to keep your trap shut.

I’ve long been a slave to Trent Reznor’s simultaneously thrilling and terrifying grind, and after years of waiting, I was looking forward to these performances with the kind of anticipation that is usually reserved for things like finding water after 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. Having said that, I was not without reservations heading in.

I had whetted my appetite for the current incarnation of Nine Inch Nails in early May at Coachella, where it was clear that Reznor, who looked like a million dollars, was undeniably capable of bringing the rock; but something was different. Having last seen Nine Inch Nails in 1994 and 1995 on the now legendary “Self Destruct” tour, it seemed, at Coachella, that something like an order of magnitude had been lost, along with all the dirty transgression and general insanity of his performance in those days. Suffice it to say that while I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Reznor look so well at Coachella, and was extremely pleased to see that he still roars, I had also been just a little dismayed, and could not quite conceive of how he would manage to achieve the power he once wielded. The concern that he simply could not made me nervous like only the anticipation of a favorite artist’s new work can.

Those worries were not in the least allayed by the absolutely brilliant warm up performance of href=”http://http://www.dresdendolls.com/”>The Dresden Dolls. Calling themselves “Brechtian Punk Cabaret” the Dolls feature the absolutely scorching Amanda Palmer on pounded piano and vocals, and the equally staggering Brian Viglione on drums.

Palmer and Viglione took the stage in white cake make-up and proceeded to deliver one of the most original, authentically incandescent performances I have ever seen. Palmer straddled her bench and rocked the piano as if it were a flame-throwing guitar in the cocksure hands of a metal god, and Viglione, all sharp cheekbones in a bowler hat behind his kit, punctuated her every word with a combination of raw power and gorgeously expressive sensitivity. Midway through their fiery cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” I had to admire Reznor’s confidence in asking an act this bewilderingly good to precede him, and started wondering how Nine Inch Nails could possibly top their singular genius.

I never should have doubted him.

After more than a decade on the Nine Inch Nails tip, during which I have witnessed the thrillingly willful destruction of all bad shit, a horrific and terrifying destruction of self, and years of ominous silence from The Empire of Dirt, it’s with the greatest possible pleasure that I say that this week’s Nine Inch Nails rock show in San Diego was nothing short of joyous and celebratory.

Gone entirely is the old sense of watching a man eat himself alive, but Reznor ripped through a crowd-pleasing retrospective delivering all the old numbers with no loss whatsoever in ferocity or emotion, but with the feeling that the whole project had been re-imagined and reclaimed by a new man — one who likes himself, loves his work, and who is trusting the raw fact of his own immense talent perhaps for the first time.

Where real desperation and filth once ruled Monday evening’s opening salvos “Wish” and “Sin”, here there was a sense of masterful theater in Reznor’s howling rage and transgressive desire. Where tearful pathos once bathed “Something I Can Never Have,” and Reznor squeezed and stroked himself in exactly the way he always has while singing it, there was a new effectiveness in his controlled performance that in no way undermined the authenticity of his genuine emotion, but instead strengthened it through undiminshed, and consciously intended performative commitment.

As for his new songs, I’ll spare you the string of superlatives: they rule, and I can’t wait for him to work more of them into the show.

For me, the most memorable moment came late in the second night’s performance, as Reznor rocked his latest single, “The Hand That Feeds.” At one point, standing back on the stage for a moment, Reznor looked out at the roiling tumult before him, all sweaty crowd surfers, raised fists and devil horns aloft, every voice raised in unison with his, and seemed to pause for a moment in his mind to really see it. Then, he smiled – just the tiniest upturn at the corners of his mouth – as if he were just in that moment taking in what he had wrought, and seeing that it was good, before baring sharp teeth and choking his somewhat battered guitar to pound his head-banging rock with renewed abandon, and what looked unmistakably like pure pleasure.

The notion that keeps blooming in my mind, more than any other, is that of Reznor’s enormous generosity as a performer. I was struck by his respect for his own work, and for himself as an artist, and as an extension of that, for his audience.

There is no way that Trent Reznor would ever take the stage without being prepared to give it up with total commitment and savage seriousness. In saying that, I don’t mean to say that he is humorlessly self-serious, because that widely-held misconception concerning the alleged relentlessness of his angst need to be put to rest in the worst way. I mean to say that, essentially, he truly and soulfully stands behind everything he does, and ever has done, with every single part of himself, and that is pure gold. You can’t ask for more.

Reznor takes Nine Inch Nails on to a festival tour in Europe this summer before returning to the states for an arena tour this fall. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t miss it.

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About Jaime Nichols

  • Bryan

    Another great piece — and as a NIN comrade-in-arms who was fortunate enough to be at both of the San Diego shows, I must agree that it was a revelation.

    Whatever awkward steps Reznor has put forth on his new search-for-live-performance-self (Coachella), they all seem to have been summarily left behind him. He is an artist reclaimed, and though the experience of seeing NIN on this tour could not be further from the depravity of the “self-destruct” tour, with_teeth era NIN live has a power and assurance that is unequalled.

    Plus they played “The Day The World Went Away” and “Dead Souls”. How cool is THAT?

  • http://www.wearingthesechains.com Dierdre

    Nice review, but you forgot to mention that he was also TOTALLY HOT.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I’m sure she mentioned that in there somewhere, no?

  • Bennett

    Wow Jaime, what a great review. Tis is the best “back and rippin” piece I’ve read since your Bauhaus Totally Undead concert review! You have a way of capturing the excitement, better than damn near anyone.

    Fanfreakingtastic!

    Thanks for the uplift to my spirit.

  • Howler

    Nice Review! I’m so jealous I can hardly stand it.

  • Mr. Testy

    Just a test.

  • http://crazyjaneski.typepad.com Jaime Nichols

    Thanks everybody…

    And, Dierdre, I didn’t forget

  • Diana

    It’s so cool to read a review that calls a NIN concert “joyous”. It’s true. I had such a great time at this show, and Trent does look like a million dollars. I’m sure you couldn’t have forgotten.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    I promoted this review to Advance.net. That means I put it here (and these places) where it could potentially be read by another few hundred thousand readers.

    – Thank you for the post. Temple Stark