Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 7-21-14 (photos, review, video)By Laura Keeney | July 22nd, 2014 | 11 comments
There are two distinct camps when it comes to nostalgic rock tours. One is filled with aging rockers sleepwalking lazily through their greatest hits in a clear attempt to relive their glory days and rake in the dough. (Like Foghat. Why are those guys still touring? Exactly.) The other, an undertaking by earnest musicians who still have energy and passion for creating art, and who feed off of playing their songs to a live crowd.
Twenty years after what’s arguably each band’s magnum opus — Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” and Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral” — the former Billboard chart rivals have taken to the road for a 20-plus date trek across the U.S. together. It would be easy to write the tour off at face value as wistful sentimentality. But, despite the prevalence of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Tool t-shirts throughout Red Rocks on Monday night, this show was anything but tired reminiscence.
Let’s start with Soundgarden and the fact that Chris Cornell just turned 50 years old. Let that sink in for a second. Yes, Chris Cornell is 50. And Soundgarden’s music, although among many prevalent grunge acts in the 1990s, stood out due to Cornell’s absurd vocal range. Rich, piercing and almost shrill at times, guttural and buttery at others, Cornell’s pipes have only improved with age.
Cornell, joined by guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Chamberlin (who is filling in for Matt Cameron, currently on tour with Pearl Jam), ripped through a multitude of tracks mostly from 1991’s “Badmotorfinger” and the aforementioned “Superunknown.” Authoritative renditions of “Jesus Christ Pose,” and “Rusty Cage” fused seamlessly with the iconic hits “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” both songs which won the band Grammy Awards in 1995. If there were any doubts that Cornell’s pipes can still deliver, they were quelled during a driving, lush “The Day I Tried To Live” that reverberated off the cathedral-like walls of the amphitheatre in a chill-inducing manner. One more time around might do it, indeed.
WATCH: Soundgarden performs “The Day I Tried To Live”
The band only played one track at my count off 2012’s “King Animal.” Instead, Soundgarden gave devotees what they wanted, playing the crunchy, angst-filled and ennui-tinged songs that helped define a generation desperately seeking themselves. This was pure, unadulterated aural pleasure, delivered in the tastiest of fashions to an absolutely ravenous audience. Grunge is dead; long live grunge.
And then there was Nine Inch Nails, a band known not only known for being boundary-pushing industrial grunge pioneers, but also for their incredible live light show and visuals. NIN has increasingly embraced the arena-rock scenario, staging elaborate productions that include multiple, moving LED screens, image projections and other visuals to complement their awe-inspiring performances. However, Red Rocks is a different animal altogether, offering a spectacle created by nature’s hand unmatched by even the most expert of light shows. So, the band took the stage four across in a straight line, with nothing more than four white screens behind them and gaff tape marks visible on the stage.
As with many sets the band has played in recent months, things kicked off with “Copy of A” from the latest release “Hesitation Marks” — a track that’s decent but still not the Trent-Reznor-punched-me-in-the-gut Nine Inch Nails track of their earlier years. It didn’t stay that way for long: Reznor next crooned a stripped-down and downright sexy “Sanctified” straight into the pummelling “1,000,000” and “March of the Pigs” and beyond. As the screens moved around in various formations, the set came back around full circle to the synth-heavy, sultry and pleading “Terrible Lie” and the sensual “Closer,” where Reznor disappeared behind a screen only to have his face projection sing the song to the audience, Max Headroom-style.
WATCH: “Closer” (NSFW)
A band that’s been around as long as Nine Inch Nails doesn’t necessarily have to pander to fans’ every whim. That said, at one point mid-way through their show, NIN went into a stretch of newer, more EDM-based material where Reznor stood on a platform in front of a screen and/or strobe lights went into berserker mode.
WATCH: Is it an EDM fest or is Nine Inch Nails in there somewhere?
It was an odd transition that instantly subdued the manic energy of the crowd into a semi-enthusiastic trance. “Wish” finally brought the energy back up to a frenzy, and what followed was a stretch of raucous renditions of “Only”, “Head Like a Hole” and “The Hand That Feeds.” Reznor’s voice has never sounded as lush as it does when he croons “Hurt.” Monday night was no exception as the haunting notes were the last notes played during the encore.
So, yeah. While Soundgarden was able to make a massive crowd feel like Red Rocks was the smallest, most intimate club setting, Nine Inch Nails felt distant, almost as if they were just going through the motions at times. That’s not to say it wasn’t good — Nine Inch Nails on an “off” night is better than 99 percent of what’s out there these days. But to play a set so close to what they toured on last year (especially with as much material as they have to choose from) felt a little uninspired, despite their energy and the adapted light show.
Watch: Nine Inch Nails “March of the Pigs”
Watch: Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole”
Laura Keeney is an online news producer and journalist for The Denver Post. She’s obsessed with Joe Strummer, comic books and all the live music. Follow her @LauraKeeney.
Seth McConnell is a member of YourHub at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.