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Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13

Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Nine Inch Nails: Tension Tour
With Explosions in the Sky
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, September 28, 2013

A quarter century after forming Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor is finally losing his edge. Some say it happened a long time ago, but it's definitely happening -- in spite of his beautiful family, his deft straddling of DIY/major label culture, his gym membership, his Academy Award, his Dr. Dre collabo, and all the pieces that fell into place in the less-recent past. Either that, or it's happening because of these milestones.

Fortunately for his muse, the whole mid-life, mid-career crisis thing can be just as much of a dark cloud as being a frustrated teenager -- if you squint just right. A resulting new Nine Inch Nails album is an exploration of dance music and major chords cleverly called Hesitation Marks. And St. Paul's hosting of a new tour's opening night would prove whether or not a 48-year-old Reznor could roll out this model of himself and have anyone buy into it.

See Also: Slideshow: Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13

It began aptly with "Copy of A," which encapsulated the woes of giving a dedicated audience what they passionately crave without being bored to tears creatively. After years of making his name writing as a tortured persona, eventually it wasn't believable anymore coming from the successful emperor of dirt. Just as LCD Soundsystem's markedly younger James Murphy once snootily turned losing his edge into art, this song is a triumphant admission of defeat.  Strong in voice, Reznor sang "I am just a copy of a copy of a copy/ Everything I say has come before," over a bass-heavy groove. It's privileged tension, but tension all the same.

Nearly four years since the Wave Goodbye Tour, Nine Inch Nails have forged a live experience built on precision musicianship, a mix of hits and ample new material, the most impressive Matrix-like light displays ever concocted, and more smoke than Wiz Khalifa's dressing room. Under stage lights initially hanging low enough for Reznor and co. to touch them with outstretched hands, this hockey arena felt like the biggest basement show ever. Eventually, it became like watching artificial intelligence eat a band.

Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Even if we all know things are going well for Mr. Self Destruct, Reznor still did his part to at least appear to be in hell throughout the performance. With only three basic moves at his disposal -- the double-fist mic clasp and wail, the dramatic lean back with head bowed and eyes clenched shut, and the rallying wave of a rippled arm or two -- he sold "Terrible Lie" with more conviction than a thousand Chester Benningtons. With a two-guitar attack courtesy of NIN vet Robin Finck and multi-instrumentalist Josh Eustis, this was discordant bliss. As they transitioned into a brightly lit "March of the Pigs," the entire crowd became a singular pumping fist, and then everyone turned on a dime to vamp it up for the smarmy lounge act of "Piggy." "Let's fuckin' do this!" were the only spoken words necessary at its closure.

Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13
Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13
Photos by Erik Hess

As the performance deepened, Reznor did his best to let the music and transparent projection screen in front of the band do the talking -- until the live spectacle came to a sudden halt. At this point, his crisp ensemble was highlighted by Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson completely owning backup vocals, bassist Pino Palladino holding court, and drummer Ilan Rubin racking up an unreal Whack-A-Mole score on the kit. After "Came Back Haunted" provided razor-sharp proof that the clowns of EDM will get beaten at their own game by stadium rock you can dance to, everything went black. Reznor announced, "We have to make sure we have our shit together," and a few quiet minutes passed by.

 

New and new-ish material followed once the lights came back on, and texture proved to be even more important than sheer volume for tracks like "Running" and "Satellite." This stretch of relative inactivity from the crowd was eventually met with a chamber unloaded rapid-fire into our temples via "Somewhat Damaged," "Wish," "Only," "The Hand That Feeds," and set-closer "Head Like a Hole."

So what tension was left? "We had a few fuck-ups aIong the way, but it made it interesting," Reznor said after thanking the crowd upon his encore return. He then showed as much genuine anger as he would during the entire performance when the light operators didn't immediately illuminate his band, who deserved a hearty recognition for making sense of the material amid blinding elements, and elevating it far above a synth and pony show. 

Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13
Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13
Nine Inch Nails at Xcel Energy Center, 9/28/13
Photos by Erik Hess

If not playing "Closer" during the encore was biting the hand that feeds, then Nine Inch Nails were guilty as charged. But the spare beauty of "Hurt," the most quiet song of the night by a million, felt right. Now that it's just as much a Johnny Cash song as a NIN one, doing justice to it has additional weight. Each lyric sung hundreds of times before was delivered reverently, and every soft chord stayed hanging in the air. It was like listening to a dead man's ghost. Not just of the Man in Black, but the black-hearted, rough-edged man Trent Reznor used to be.

The Opener: Texas-bred instrumentalists Explosions in the Sky flailed away on their instruments in majestic fashion. They looked and sounded the part of five guys absolutely over the moon to be there, and they deserve our ticket dollars in the future.

Overheard: On Explosions in the Sky: "That was the worst mix I've ever heard. The sound was much better at Mumford & Sons." Regarding Pino Palladino: "I'm giving him like four hand jobs."

Random Notebook Dump: During "March of the Pigs": "Sick. Sick. Sick."

The Crowd: Basically a black T-shirt convention, and primarily old enough to relate to the guy who said "I haven't seen these guys since '95 at Woodstock."

Personal Bias: I don't remember where I was during a ton of historic events, but the fateful night in '94 that 93.7 the Edge debuted "Closer" is still like yesterday. I was at my parents' house in Northfield, and failing at doing my homework. After a few previous close calls, this was the moment when Reznor's not-so-secret dedication to skewed, but undeniably pop songwriting took me further down the spiral than I ever could've imagined. Much like a lot of the rap music I devoured at the time, it employed imagery highly preferred over anything lurking in my Geometry textbook, and an inescapable beat. I've been happily enslaved ever since. Admittedly, it would've been nice to hear "Closer," "The Perfect Drug," their cover of Queen's "Get Down Make Love," and "Mr. Self Destruct." But whatev.

Setlist:

Copy of A
1,000,000
Terrible Lie
March of the Pigs
Piggy
All Time Low
Disappointed
Came Back Haunted
Find My Way
Satellite
I Would for You
Survivalism
Running
A Warm Place
Somewhat Damaged
Wish
Only
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole

Encore:
Even Deeper
In This Twilight
While I'm Still Here
Black Noise
Hurt

See Also:
50 cool facts about the Minnesota music scene
Top 20 best Minnesota musicians: The complete list
Top 10 must-see Minnesota music videos this week

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