SF Gate

June 2000

Concert produced like a theater piece

There were so many surprising aspects of the Nine Inch Nails show Wednesday night at the Cow Palace that it's tough to tell where to begin.

Perhaps most amazing was the quality of the sound in the old rodeo yard, a notoriously horrible venue that tends to swallow and mute music worse than any other place than the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Astonishingly, probably because Nails leader Trent Reznor cares so much about "The Fragile," the recently released double CD that the group spent two years in the studio producing, the music was crystal clear in the hall.

Once the shock of that feat wore off, the next mind-bender was the effort the group put into the lighting and staging to accompany their music. This was not just a concert, this was performance art. Reznor has assembled what may be his best version of the Nails yet -- at least onstage. Guitarist Robin Finck was a particular standout, able to adapt his playing to any mood associated with Reznor's eclecticly stylized catalog of songs.

If he needed to provide a subtle yet unforgettable accompaniment to "La Mer," one of the new records gentler tracks, Finck flowed through the song effortlessly, his playing noticeable only when the listener realized how much he or she was being transported emotionally to an almost liquid mental state. And not the kind of liquid mental state you might see at a Jimmy Page concert, where so much Jack Daniels is consumed that the brain is floating along in Ol' Number 7.

"La Mer," and it's immediate follow-up, both live and on the record, "The Great Below," were visually stunning as the group used three massive, 17-foot tall columns -- the center panel 6 feet wide and the two side panels 3 feet wide -- to project imagery by noted video artist Bill Viola.

Viola's images, on the columns designed by lighting expert Marc Brickman -- who helped give Pink Floyd a lot of their exceptional concert reputation -- grew from peaceful images of ripples in the water to more conflicting, violent imagery of fire and water as the band's sound grew in intensity.

The efforts made in staging alone -- plus the band's willingness to consciously mix some of their older material like "Wish" from 1992's "Broken" EP and especially "Hurt," the tune from 1994's "Downward Spiral" that Reznor used to close the show with a burst of heartfelt soul that left the audience nearly breathless -- displayed how much thought had been given to every detail of this Nine Inch Nails tour.

They weren't just pushing the new product, they were creating a living, breathing musical novel, the songs fit that seamlessly.

And really, maybe the most remarkable aspect of Wednesday night's show was how Nine Inch Nails, a group famed for their articulate expressions of angst and loneliness and nihilism, could leave a full house wandering out into the rain smiling as though they had just seen The Monkees.

The cathartic experience is one of the greatest emotions on the planet, and with Reznor's compositions loaded with experiences of abandonment, hopelessness and pain that usually can never be so eloquently expressed, let alone shared, it is little wonder that people can leave smiling.

Take, for example, the title track to the latest double CD. Here, Reznor can sing of a mystery woman how "She shines in a world full of ugliness/She matters when everything is meaningless "Fragile. She doesn't see her beauty/ She tries to get away sometimes/ It's just that nothing seems worth saving/ I can't watch her slip away/ I won't let you fall apart."

The sentiment may not be so different from the great Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely," but the healing that can take place when one feels less alone can never be underestimated. Nine Inch Nails, and Trent Reznor's willingness to hold back nothing of his own inner turmoil, made Wednesday night's concert easily one of the best shows since the yearometer clicked over to zeros.

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Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails
This article is provided courtesy Keith Duemling and Tracy Thompson from the collection previously located at SUS.