Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II had given way to Recoil, Alan Wilder's latest project, and the immense curtains masking the stage setup seemed to be breathing, as smoke seeped out the top and people scurried around behind the black veil. When 'A Perfect Circle' finished their set, I moved towards the center and as up-front as I could get without pushing. The crowd started getting compressed, and the tension was beginning to build with the crowd. I heard my name screeched out to my left, and looked over to spot Carol, separated from where I was by about six people. I reached over and she pulled herself next to me and exclaimed about how close she was going to get to the stage. Lights go dim, time goes by, and soon I recognize the backmasked bassline from 'The New Flesh', booming over the PA system. I don't think many people recognized what they were hearing. A European setlist had marked this as a 6:10 intro tape, so I had a good idea of when things would get kicking. The ebb and flow of the crowd set to this hypnotic, constant bass line really felt mesmerizing.
As this instrumental mix sent inverted bass discharges roaring through the arena, slowly building to apex, a particularly sizzling, very brief appearance of Pinion marked the true start of the incoming spectacle. The opening staccato riff to Somewhat Damaged lit the crowd up, as lights flashed behind the enormous black curtain. Strobes flashing to different elements of the song showed sporadic, exaggerated silhouettes of the band members as they tore into the song. While crowd surfers had already started tumbling by overhead, and the song was in full effect, the curtain remained up. Was there a malfunction? No, this was Nine Inch Nails, always challenging, making you think, this was only creating more tension in the audience.
A lot of material on the Fragile made extensive use of overdubbing to give the effect that 120 Trent Reznors were singing the chorus of some song to you, in the comfort of your home or automobile. That's emotional, that's slick, that's effective. When 8,000 people are screaming 'Too fucked up to care anymore!', that's astonishing.
The final notes to Somewhat Damaged played through, and the curtain finally dropped. I don't know if I forgot how close I was to the stage, or if I had been thrown off by the distorted shadows I had been watching for six minutes, but when that drape dropped, everyone behind it looked huge, even monstrous. I've seen a hell of a lot of live shots of TR & the band, but even when I managed to shove a clear view of the stage into my range of vision (for a moment, anyway), everything just seemed larger than life. "Hey God!" Terrible Lie did nothing but stir up the chaos up front even further. There was such a force to the crowd... it was a real mix of attendees. There were some courteous people, helping you up when you fell on your ass and such, and on the other end of the spectrum you had the asshole who managed to sneak a billy-club into the show and made use of it in the pit. The lights gushed through the smoke and probed over the mellifluous crowd when March of the Pigs' syncopated beats set the crowd on fire.
After the "All the Pigs, All Lined Up" addition to March of the Pigs, Trent took to the keyboard and played the quiet instrumental, The Frail. The crowd was still pretty antsy, and next to me I hear a girl crying. It reminded me of foxfire and dwnwrd's tales from the LA rehearsals, thinking – is it a prerequisite that during the Frail, a girl nearby should be sobbing? But she wasn't sobbing, she was crying pretty hard. We were further up, and it was pretty tough trying not to get squished. As I'm quite the wuss, my arms were already pretty tired from pushing people out of my way and keeping on my feet. So the guy to her left and I did our best to make sure she had some breathing room, but things got pretty wild once the Frail descended into The Wretched. About halfway through the Wretched, she had stopped crying, I think she was feeling better, but I was dehydrated and was feeling nausea setting in. Before leaving, I asked if she was alright, and she yelled over the music that she was okay but she was worried about her friend up front. "Thank you so much," I think she said, before I made my way to the back of the crowd.
The Big Comedown was stomping through the PA system while I stumbled back to find some water. From the back of the crowd on the floor (which was actually pretty scattered, a little disappointing that they couldn't sell more general admission to those who wanted it), the stage looked great! The light show was fantastic, it looked wicked! However, if I didn't put some cold water into my system, I was going to either pass out or start dry heaving, and neither of those are things I'd like to be doing at a NIN show. The second-hand pot smoke wasn't helping at all. Reluctantly, I pushed up the stairs to find a concession stand selling water. I laid down $5 for two bottles of water and chugged. The water definitely hit the spot... I hadn't downed a quarter of the bottle and I was feeling much better. Gave Up echoed through the halls as I sat down and drank some more of the ice cold liquid. My arms were still tired as hell, but I didn't feel the need to technicolor yawn anymore. As I flashed my wrist-band and re-entered the staircase to the floor, I quickened my pace as the circular piano motif of La Mer had begun.
As I came down the stairs, I saw three huge screens come down behind the band, silhouetting TR, Danny and Robin. Vivid images flashed on the screen as the band went through the motions, it was very captivating to me. I also saw it as a good opportunity to push as far up front as I could get. I got about three people from the fence, and finished my first bottle of water. Noticing the steam rising off of the crowd, I figured that I could put some of this ice cold water to use, and so I did as best as I could to splash my water onto as many people in the pit as possible. They seemed to like that, so I took another swig of water and then dispersed it amongst my peers again, until the bottle was empty. Everyone around me chimed in during the final verses of The Great Below.
Much to my surprise, the modulating beat for The Mark Has Been Made starts up and the smooth guitar lines roll along. Despite the slower pace of the last batch of songs, and the current slow-tempo, the crowd was still pretty difficult to deal with. It was a real good build up though, when the song hit those sludgy palm-muted crunchy bits. It was really cool live, and the backing images accentuated the track quite well I believe. Wish was next on the setlist, and the crowd was going crazy, ready for some more action. I'm getting tired so I'll briefly run through the rest of the show. They played Complication after Wish, and that was just great, funky beat and roaring guitars, everyone on stage contributing to the non-lyrical vocals of the track, it was really well done live. It was exciting to catch so many instrumentals being performed live, but the best was yet to come. After rounding off the set with a trio of songs, each from separate, earlier eras. Suck, Closer, and Head Like a Hole, all really rounded things off well. Trent introduced Head Like a Hole; "I wrote this song in Cleveland, then I got the fuck out," the PHM classic had crowd involvement peaking. Then, after a few minutes of silence and strobe lights, the encore.
"Here we are, starting everything off in Cleveland again," a reference to the TR's formulation of Nine Inch Nails there in 1988, now kicking off the tour in the same town. "Here are some songs that we like to play..." They proceeded to play The Day The World Went Away, but it was like a big jam session. Robin, Danny, and Trent got in a circle and played the opening chord progressions together, Jerome tore it up on the drums, and Trent played a very nice guitar solo to accompany the music. Everyone took their own path, and it sounded very, very tight. I'd love it if there were a live version of TDTWWA on the next Nine Inch Nails CD. It was only now that I noticed the lack of theremin use from Charlie's Corner. TDTWWA doesn't seem like it'd be a good live track, but I felt it was one of the best songs they played that night. "This next song is something we've actually never played before..." The decision to play must have been spur of the moment, as the band had to get coordinated, going silent for about five minutes while they figured out just how they were going to pull this off. The crowd, anxious, cheered even louder as sounds emitted from gear moving around stage, microphones getting bumped into...
And then the introductory notes to "Just Like You Imagined" come through, and I flip out. Such a great track and they're playing it live, never before attempted! The drums were pounding, the bassline gripped me, while the fuzzed out guitars soared to new heights. This was just too cool. I hope everyone gets to hear this track live, it's one of my favorites and they really, erm, nailed it. There's a real tightness to the band that hadn't been there in tours past. Charlie's improved his keyboarding skills, Jerome's drumming is just so in-your-face, funky and fresh. And Robin's one of the most emotive guitar players I've encountered while on stage. Everything fit so well.
To bring things to a quick close, Starfuckers brought the house down, and Hurt was fantastic, though I'm not too thrilled about the 250 pound fuckwad who landed on my neck (it was a good one, made a crunch sound and all. My ear's still bruised). Now, I've seen a lot of concerts. I've seen a few really, really good performers. All NIN bias aside, this show wasn't even in the same class of energy, entertainment and thrill as the best of those. Seeing the band in Cleveland has me wishing that my next show was Columbus, not Philadelphia. April 12th is going to be a night I'll never forget. Absolutely all of it because of Nine Inch Nails.