By Brian Ives
CAMDEN, N.J. (CBS) — Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden have a lot in common: each band released what was, arguably, their greatest album on March 8, 1994 (Soundgarden’s Superunknown debuted at #1, Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral at #2). Johnny Cash has covered both bands: Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” (backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, no less!) and, more famously, Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt.” And both took lengthy hiatuses, making returns to active touring and recording service in the past few years.
That last point is an important one: it’s a bit too easy to say that this tour represents the “return of 1994 alt-rock” or something like that. More accurately, the tour represents victory laps for two bands who each at the end of lengthy and successful touring cycles behind comeback albums that were not just “good,” but great, and which held up to their rather intimidating legacies.
Neither band leaned too heavily on their new material (NIN playing “Find My Way” and “Disappointed” from 2013’s Hesitation Marks, Soundgarden doing “Been Away Too Long” and “A Thousand Days Before” from 2012’s King Animal) – after all, huge ampitheatrers aren’t necessarily the right venues for too much recent material for twenty-something year old bands. But the newer material was a reminder that both bands still have gas left in the tank; their stories are not done being told. And the fans reacted with enthusiasm: there were no “bathroom break” moments in either band’s set.
And both groups hit the stage as if they had something to prove (and of course, neither wanted to be outdone by the other). Soundgarden are, at this point, a finely tuned powerhouse. They reunited in 2010, began touring in 2011, released King Animal in 2012 and have toured often since then. Now, however, they’re using a fill-in drummer, Matt Chamberlin, for their long time skinsman Matt Cameron (who joined Pearl Jam after Soundgarden’s 1997 breakup and has been splitting his time between the two bands since 2010). Chamberlin, who once filled in for Pearl Jam and has been Tori Amos’s drummer of choice in recent years, was spot on all night, and seemed to have a warm bond with singer/guitarist Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd. Soundgarden favored Superunknown in their set, as it is the subject of a recent expanded reissue; they dedicated half the set to that album. But they also went back to their ’91 classic Badmotorfinger for a few songs, and they closed with “Beyond the Wheel,” from their indie label Ultramega OK album from 1988, a reminder of how abrasive they used to be, what an unlikely candidate they once were for mainstream success, and how far they’ve come. The fact that they performed that proto-punk classic with equal conviction as “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell On Black Days” proved the band’s range, and its power.
Nine Inch Nails played after Soundgarden, with leader and principal member Trent Reznor hitting the stage by himself, while the house lights were still on. Opening with “Somewhat Damaged” (a song that could double as his personal theme song), Reznor led the band through a furious set that explored the band’s history. Last year, NIN sported an expanded lineup which included journeyman bass player Pino Palladino (who has toured with everyone from D’angelo to the Who to John Mayer) and backing vocalist Lisa Fischer (who has been in the Rolling Stones’ touring band for two decades). For this trek, he’s stripped the ranks down to just four people, including himself. Somehow, even with diminished ranks, the music has not lost any of its power: “Gave Up” and “Head Like a Hole” are as furious as ever; “Hurt” and “The Day the World Went Away” as mournful. The current incarnation, which features Ilan Rubin, Alessandro Cortini and Robin Finck, all played numerous instruments throughout the show, and is one of the tightest NIN lineups this writer has observed in two decades of following the band.
The power of NIN’s shows owes a lot to the lighting design as well as the music, which may sound odd to someone who hasn’t seen them perform. But the innovative use of LED screens and lights provide each song with a different look, and the effect can’t be understated. Soundgarden’s show, which used interesting lighting and animation on screens behind them, was a bit more subtle, and less of a factor in their performance. Which isn’t to say that one approach worked better than the other; the effect of seeing both bands, back-to-back, was probably something like what it would have been to see Led Zeppelin perform before Pink Floyd in the ’70s.
One big difference in seeing these bands in 2014 and two decades ago: Cornell and Reznor are both in better form than ever. They both seem clean, healthy, focused and perhaps most surprisingly, they occasionally smile on stage. That seemed to translate to the audience: whether the show reminded fans of their own younger selves, or that – like Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails – the show was a reminder that their own stories are still being told, the nearly sold out crowd walked out of the venue, minds blown, but with smiles on their faces.