Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor performs Saturday night at DTE Energy Music Theatre. (Adam Graham / Detroit News)
Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden played to a nearly sold-out DTE Energy Music Theatre Saturday night, and by the end of the show, it was tough to remember whether Soundgarden was even there.
It’s hardly Soundgarden’s fault. It’s just that Nine Inch Nails’ show is so dominating, so monolithic, that any band would have trouble competing with it. If there’s a better touring show in 2014 than Nine Inch Nails’, let’s see it.
Trent Reznor walked out onto the DTE stage unannounced Saturday night, the house lights still up, and with only a sampler, a microphone and a light on stage, he laid into “Copy of a.” He was then joined by his bandmates one by one, as crew members set up their instruments seconds before they walked out. It was a lo-fi, unassuming way to begin the show that packed more visual firepower than a dozen other rock shows combined. Reznor didn’t need flames or fireworks to create his eye-popping masterpiece, just a dazzling sense of lighting and video cues and the moxie and wherewithal to pull it off.
Reznor isn’t hiding behind the technology in his show or using it as a prop. It is intertwined into his music, and he uses silhouettes and shadows to illustrate the emotional tightrope he walks in his songs. “I don’t feel anything at all” (“1,000,000”), “I’m just trying to find my way” (“Find My Way”) – Reznor is constantly emotionally purging himself, finding new ways to describe the alienation, pain and angst he feels amid the bleakness of everyday existence. And he doesn’t just recite his lyrics, they spill out from him as he doubles over in pain, his massive arms clutching his microphone stand both for balance and for dear life. He says he doesn’t feel anything at all, but he feels everything.
And that translated to the crowd, which basked in the bombast of the 90-minute, 18-song show that touched on hits (“Closer,” “Wish,” “The Hand That Feeds,” “Head Like a Hole”) and lesser-known gems (“The Great Destroyer,” “Eraser”) from NIN’s 25-year catalog. Moreso, the show was a top-to-bottom reinvention from the one the band put on at the Palace of Auburn Hills last October. That earlier show featured a beefed-up band, including a pair of backup singers, which rolled through many of the selections from NIN’s 2013 album “Hesitation Marks.” Saturday’s band was stripped down to a four-piece and the show was leaner, while still delivering the one-of-a-kind visual experience for which NIN is known.
NIN is no stranger to DTE; including the first Lollapalooza in 1991, Saturday was at least the band’s fifth appearance at the venue. And it may have been its most impressive one yet, which is stunning considering both the passage of time and the taxing nature of the music in which Nine Inch Nails toils. NIN won’t be around forever, and when they’re gone, performances like Saturday’s will take on even more heft. The band is truly one for the ages.
So how could Soundgarden compete with that? They couldn’t. So the band did what it does best, crank up the monster riffage, and they let ‘er rip during their 80-minute opening set. The band had almost no visual show to speak of – which could partially be blamed on going on when the sun was still out – so it let its volume do the talking, as guitarist Kim Thayil unleashed an unholy amount of pummeling guitar sludge during songs like “Superunknown,” “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage.” Frontman Chris Cornell mentioned Detroit’s water crisis during a brief speech, dedicating “The Day I Tried to Live” to “everybody that’s getting (expletive’d) with right now.” One of rock’s great wailers, his howl became a haunting cry on set-closer “Beyond the Wheel,” as bassist Ben Shepherd kicked over a bucket of ice on stage and stormed off as the song closed while waves of swirling guitars still poured through the speakers.
Back in 1994, both Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails released seminal albums on the same day – Soundgarden put out “Superunknown” and NIN released “The Downward Spiral.” “Superunknown” won the sales battle, debuting at No. 1, while NIN had to settle for the runner-up spot. Twenty years later, both bands are still alive and kicking, and NIN is able to enact revenge on Soundgarden by showing them up every night. The show is not a competition, it’s a partnership, but you can’t help but think Reznor derives a certain amount of satisfaction from obliterating his tourmates off stage. In the battle for longevity, Nine Inch Nails wins by a mile.