I WAS THERE . . . Nine Inch Nails @ Webster Hall, 8/23/09

Trent Reznor has been quite the comeback kid. After returning from a long absence in 2005 with a few average albums, I had all but written him off as a prematurely exhausted talent. But he’s been on the artistic rebound since 2008, releasing two of his best albums in years (The Slip and the instrumental Ghosts I-IV), revolutionizing DIY music sale/distribution, and embracing Internet and mobile technology to reach his audience to a degree unmatched by his peers.

But his winning streak has come with a price. On Aug. 23, Reznor, now 44, brought Nine Inch Nails to Webster Hall – the second of four sold out New York concerts on NIN’s final Wave Goodbye tour – and reminded us just how much his live presence will be missed. (He has stated that he most likely will still make and release music as Nine Inch Nails.)

It started the second the lights went out – after a solid but under-appreciated opening set by The Horrors – when our eardrums were struck with a familiar series of accelerating gunshot-like bangs. Emerging from a cloud of heavy fog, the band blasted into opener “Mr. Self Destruct.” To call the set that followed a “best-of” would be accurate, but not in the traditional sense; instead of a career-spanning greatest hits run, the band ripped through an endurance-testing performance of 1994 masterpiece The Downward Spiral, front to back, in its entirety.

To say it was memorable would be an understatement. The first, last and only full performance of what can be considered not only the Nails’ best album, but also one of the most progressive, engrossing, and intense albums of the past 20 years. And probably the one album almost everyone in attendance knew inside and out, as evidenced by the fist-pumping singalongs given to each song (there’s few scenarios as menacing as hearing 1,500 people screaming “God is dead and no one cares!” to the serrated guitars and throbbing sequencers of “Heresy”).

Reznor and each member of his lean four-piece band (one of the best lineups the live incarnation has ever had) juggled multiple instruments with impressive proficiency throughout the shifting song structures and tricky time signatures; The Downward Spiral performance was virtually note-perfect, but energetic, impassioned, and anything but sterile – there was plenty of room for noisy dissonance and for guitarist Robin Finck to crowd surf, briefly, during “March of the Pigs.”

After the blaring final chords of “Hurt” (during which the audience failed an attempt to clap along), the band went right into a second set of ten classics, though nothing from Year Zero or The Fragile was performed. I’d rather have heard some of that material than a fairly standard cover of Gary Numan’s “Metal” or even Broken’s Adam Ant cover “Physical (You’re So).”

If the Downward Spiral performance was the night’s first curveball, then the second came after the rousing show-closer “Head Like A Hole,” when Reznor gave a succinct “Thank you very much,” before tossing his guitar into the drum set and walking off stage. The closure-seeking audience demanded an encore and stuck around for at least 10 minutes – even after stage crew started breaking down gear – but it was not to be.

You’d have been hard pressed to hear anyone complain though. After all, we’d just seen a blistering and one of a kind (and for most people there, a final) performance by one of modern music’s most visionary groups, in one of the smallest venues they’ve played in more than 10 years. The heat and humidity were nearly unbearable for most of the set, and at times it was hard to get a good breath of air. I walked away sweaty, exhausted, and beaten down.

But I could sleep soundly; everything was all right…

John Mordecai

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