It’s been three years — if you don’t count their Bakersfield warm-up show last week — since Nine Inch Nails have played live, and Sunday night, as the band closed out FYF, it was pretty clear that frontman Trent Reznor missed performing onstage as much as we, his fans, missed experiencing him do so. NIN provided a blistering set worthy of punctuating the three-day music fest’s best lineup ever, filled with both the industrial-style bombast and the downtempo torment that helped the band transcend other dark, synth-driven bands of the ’90s.
The set list was similar to the one from earlier in the week with a few small change-ups, and both featured tracks that had never been played live before from NIN’s last two EPs — last year’s Not the Actual Events and the brand-new one, Add Violence. But it wasn’t all new material on Sunday. Reznor gave us longtime followers a smattering of old stuff, and the more casual fans who’d been traipsing around Exposition Park all day got a reason to endure their body aches as some of the band’s biggest hits were peppered throughout the set.
It was an all-over-the-place procession of music, an intense shuffle-style playlist that was unsettling in its varying intensity. The erratic transitions not only worked, though — they slayed. You really didn’t know where the band would go next after each song, but each new mood, melody and manic moment felt more exhilarating and engrossing than the next. And it should be noted here that the entire band matched Reznor’s output perfectly. Guitarist Robin Finck shared raging riffs and lots of potent backing vocals, while bass and synth player Alessandro Cortini and drummer Ilan Rubin were noticeably relentless in laying down rhythms and longtime Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross provided a grindingly good electro foundation throughout. Backed and bookended by giant LCD screens showing the band close up, and with well-placed mood lighting, it was a proper stadium-sized rock experience.
“Branches/Bones” from the 2016 EP opened up the show, followed by an oldie, “Wish,” from their ’92 EP, Broken; then “Less Than,” the bouncy single off the latest EP. The dance beats and catchy chorus of “Less Than” resemble classic NIN material and make it pretty clear that Reznor and writing partner Ross still have a lot to contribute to the pop music sphere, despite moving more heavily into film scores and soundtracks.
Their gifts for creating tension and conjuring atmosphere have served them well cinematically, but they still have more textures to bare with Nine Inch Nails. Ambiance and mood are one thing, but Reznor’s soul-baring lyrics and fervent yet poignant vocal style have always conveyed internal misery like no one else. Coupled with his obvious affection for a tight, hypnotic groove, it makes for a seductive blend. A few decades ago, this caustic combo not only made him a poster boy for the angsty alternative rock era but an enigmatic sex symbol and a bona fide rock star.
Age hasn’t diminished Reznor’s ominous aura (he’s 52), nor has success, but both seem to have made him more assured within it. Even after winning an Academy Award for the score to The Social Network and getting married and starting a family, he proved he has no problem conjuring the somber and often scathing sonic flashes of his early work. He did so four years ago at Staples Center and he did so last night, especially when the pulse of old and new cuts started coming strong, one after the next, beginning with the start/stop frenzy of “March of the Pigs” off The Downward Spiral, then changing gears with the woeful heartbreaker “Something I Can Never Have” off Pretty Hate Machine. From there we got a solid mix of songs off pretty much every NIN record, including ’99’s The Fragile, 2007’s Year Zero and a track from someone’s else’s album — a cover of “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” from David Bowie’s Blackstar, which made its debut a few nights earlier in Bakersfield.
Reznor, who spoke more for that song’s intro than he did during the entire rest of the set, said he’d been “hiding out and watching the world go crazy” since the band took a break from playing live three years ago. He added that in that time, he’s “lost a few people that’ve meant a lot to me personally, one of which probably meant a lot to you, my friend David Bowie,” then let the twinkling, piano-driven ballad conjure the Starman’s spirit as he sang the verses alone and then along with Bowie’s original vocal during the chorus. It was an extremely dramatic yet gentle moment, and a subdued and intimate one considering the clamor that had come just before it. But the thousands-plus crowd stood quiet and transfixed, absorbing the emotional few minutes under the night’s sky.
After a day full of eclectic music — three days for the ambitious fans who could afford it — it made a lot of sense to hear the departed icon near the fest’s climax, performed by a prolific artist he inspired. If not for boundary-breaking rebels like Bowie (and his comrade Iggy Pop, who played earlier in that day), FYF’s newer artists might not have found their way to create and express themselves as overtly, honestly or passionately as they are able to today.
Reznor brought the energy back up for the last part of his set, mixing a couple more new tracks with more hits, including “The Hand That Feeds” and the almost requisite outsider anthem, “Head Like a Hole,” followed by the gorgeously gut-wrenching “Hurt” as encore. The crowd seemed drained when it was over, probably by a full weekend of festivaling but surely also by the ache and loss of the closing number. It’s a bittersweet sensation to leave an event after so many communal highs (and lows), but NIN managed to reflect these conflicted feelings and much more by sharing the full breadth of their music, all of which made for the perfect FYF goodbye … till next year.
Set list below.
March of the Pigs
Something I Can Never Have
Copy of A
I Can't Give Everything Away (David Bowie cover)
The Great Destroyer
Burning Bright (Field on Fire)
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole