Whenever people ask what the first show I ever saw was, my standard response is, “Do you want the cool answer, or the real answer?”
The real answer is that the first show I ever saw was Hammer. I’m not being defensive when I say that I wasn’t really a fan; the mother of the boy I grew up with across the street asked if I wanted to come along for their family outing to the local arena for the guy from The Addams Family soundtrack. I really only knew the two singles from the radio, as I didn’t pay attention to music until I was well into my teen years. (My main memory of the show was that there was a dancer named “No Bones,” and his contortionist skills were unnerving to my young eyes.)
But once I did start paying attention to music, one of the first artists to capture my imagination was Trent Reznor. After multiple viewings of Nine Inch Nails’ video for “Closer” and watching their Woodstock ’94 set repeatedly, I asked my dirtbag friend Shaun if I could tag along to see them at the Orlando Arena, a stop on their Self Destruct tour in support of their mainstream breakout The Downward Spiral. That night changed the way I thought about music, art and the world in general, and probably had a lot to do with why I find myself in the position of writing this piece. Nine Inch Nails have been one of my all-time favorites since then. As of last night I’ve seen them — to the best of my recollection — 13 times. Though the configurations of the band have changed to fit the mood of the album Reznor is supporting (sometimes it’s a lean four-person attack unit, sometimes it’s an expansive configuration out to recreate his moody soundscapes in detail), the Nine Inch Nails live experience is remarkably consistent. I’ve never seen them be less than very good, and when they’re truly on, it’s about as intense and transportive as arena-sized rock can get.
Last night’s headlining set at New York’s Panorama Music Festival leaned strongly towards the latter, as Reznor (at first clad in the “Evil Stroke” sunglasses and leather jacket outfit he recently wore on Twin Peaks) led his five-piece group of old hands through a set of abrasive new songs, fan favorite deep cuts like “Reptile” and a healthy serving of hits. Reznor is known for obsessive tendencies in the recording studio, ever trying to get his decaying, hostile sonics just right. But the live show is no less controlled. The central paradox of Nine Inch Nails’ stage experience is that Reznor will rehearse his backing band until they are able to convey his layered compositions in detail while still summoning the unhinged fury of, say, Black Flag or Bad Brains. It’s digital age punk from a guy who sweats the details hard.
Several songs into their set, Reznor took a few minutes to thank the audience for showing up, admitting that he couldn’t say no to the chance to play with A Tribe Called Quest and Tame Impala, and that he’d been nervous about tonight’s show every day since he signed up. These comments mirrored others that he gave in an interview with the Village Voice last week in which he expressed some onstage jitters about hitting the festival circuit this summer. It would only be their third set since 2014, and he was well aware he was the oldest person on the bill, from a different generation from most of the festival’s other acts (and fans) and there was every chance that many attendees would skip out early to beat traffic and catch Game Of Thrones. But though their set wasn’t as heavily packed as Frank Ocean’s Friday night headlining stint (which was so crowded one could barely walk through the field), he still had a very respectable draw on Sunday, and people predictably when wild for “Closer” and “Head Like A Hole.” Impressively, there were a number of old-school goth types that probably called a sitter and decided to make a day of it, but there were also a lot of young fans repping the iconic NIN logo. (Like the Cure, Patti Smith, or Minor Threat, Nine Inch Nails are one of those acts that each generation of disaffected, mopey youths discovers and makes their own.)
To his credit, one of the reasons Reznor worried about this set, I would wager, is that while it would be very easy for him to do a greatest hits set, cash the check and then go score another David Fincher film, he resolutely refuses to let Nine Inch Nails become a nostalgia object. Their set featured a healthy portion of songs from their recent EPs Not The Actual Events and Add Violence, kicking things off with the combative “Branches/Bones” and then offering up the sinewy “Less Than,” which would have gotten the goth club dance floors packed back in the day. Reznor took a charmingly lo-fi approach to duplicating the looped vocals on the fractured ballad “The Lovers,” by employing a handheld tape recorder. The band also dug deep into the catalog, playing several cuts from Broken and The Fragile highlight “The Wretched,” and you know, it’s funny. At least in my experience, when you grow old with something like Nine Inch Nails, you tend to relate to their lyrics intensely as a teenager, find them to be a bit much when you’re a little older and now, well, if you’re a cable news junkie, it’s easy to relate very intensely to lyrics like “it didn’t work out the way you wanted it/did it?/[cue explosion of angstful guitars].”
This ended up being a very poignant night. After paying tribute to their fallen comrade Phife, Q-Tip announced this would be A Tribe Called Quest’s final New York show. And while “Hurt” and “Something I Can Never Have” will always give audiences chills, the set’s emotional high point came when the band did their version of David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” one of the last song’s Reznor’s friend and mentor ever released. Their version is more somber and less ethereal than Bowie’s, and featured his recorded vocals blending with Reznor singing higher and more delicately than I’ve ever heard him on record. Reznor said he can’t come to New York without thinking of his friend, and he was made this cover to deal with the loss. This reading, and the set in general, was a fine tribute to his departed friend, one generation’s restless icon tipping his hat to the ageless icon that showed him how it’s done.