Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nine Inch Nails in Manchester 11/8/08

Currently living far away from a major city, my concert choices tend to be tried and true acts, favorites I’m willing to drive for. Every now and then it’s nice to have a whim concert though, a concert you go to just for the hell of it. Though I only knew two Nine Inch Nails songs, “Closer” and “Hurt” (and the latter only from the Johnny Cash cover), this review so intrigued me I decided, why not. Even if the music scared me, the light show sounded incredible.

Health’s task of opening a show filled with belligerent fans who just want to see Trent Reznor was admittedly unenviable, but their attitude of acting like the audience wasn’t there didn’t he
lp make a good impression. Gyrating around and making seemingly random noise, the music proved academically interesting but not aurally appealing. Most of the audience seemed not willing to even grant them that though; after a “song” or two the boos, heckles, and middle fingers began flying. One band member earned himself an extra dose of scorn by rarely playing an instrument or singing, instead spending most of his time humping the drum kit and amplifiers. To their credit, they stuck it out, but made no effort to get the audience on their side as the scene threatened to turn ugly.

If Nine Inch Nails frontman, songwriter, and lone permanent band member Reznor erred in choosing them to open, that was about the only mistake he made tonight. Not a concert of spontaneity and freedom, this concert was a carefully choreographed assault on all your senses, the sonic charge matched only by the visual. Because Marcel was not exaggerating on the light show; this was a concert a deaf person would love. Pages would be needed to do justice to the many effects they used, but they all revolved around three stage-length screens that rose and fell, two behind the band and one in front. Not normal screens though, these were metal mesh, allowing images to be projected on them or the band to be seen through. Or both, as in the effect where the screen filled with static, parting periodically to let a band member be seen before collapsing back in on them (see the picture). Or the effect where the band seemed to be playing in a sea of electric fire at their feet and above their heads. Or the effect where static (lots of static in this show) filled the screen, only to be slowly erased by Reznor using some flashlight. Or the…

You get the idea. There were barren landscapes, crowd cameras, a sea of strobe lights perfectly calibrated with the music, a wall of lights behind the screen perfectly programmed to look like the whole wall was bending and warping as the lig
hts turned. Careful not to blow his load too early, Reznor brought out new effects throughout the two-hour show, never ceasing to amaze with the next optical trick or visual explosion. Though perhaps not up to the level of Radiohead, who truly broke new ground in their vertical columns (review), Nine Inch Nails worked within more traditional confines to assault the audience’s eyes with majesty.

The incredible light show didn’t come as a big surprise to me; it was the main reason I was there. What truly stunned me though was how well it all coordinated with the music, each enhancing the other to make even the least industrial type there (me) rock along with every heavy distortion crunch and stuttery beat. Though I don’t know enough to match the visuals to the songs, suffice to say they synced to perfection, drum thumps controlling the static and wavery instrumentals shifting as slowly as the apocalyptic clouds projected above the band.

Trent took the band, featuring longtime collaborator Rob Finck rocking a hairstyle that was part dreadlocks, part faux-hawk, and a little bit of skinhead on the side, through songs spanning the band’s twenty-year career, leaning heavily on the new material (of which there is lots – four albums released in the last three years). Where many audiences would resent such a oldies-light set though, that seemed to be what this crowd looked forward to the most. New tracks like “Discipline” and “Echoplex” got rapturous welcomes, whereas many seemed bored during “Closer.” Perhaps this out-of-the-way venue attracted only the die-hards following the tour (the Boston fans had their own show the following night), but you could feel the deep knowledge in the arena before you even noticed the many t-shirts from previous tours.

For “Hurt” though, no matter how many times everyone had seen it live, people knew enough to quiet down, hold lighters aloft, and stand enraptured as Trent sang, pulling back on the visuals for the only time in the evening. More than a few eyes glistened as his voice wavered over one of the most unhappy songs ever written. Though another tune followed, that proved the emotional end, a meditative close to a loud evening. Angst-ridden industrial may not be everyone’s music of choice, but Trent Reznor is an artist in every sense of the word, going all out to deliver a concert experience his fans will remember forever.

Letting You
March of the Pigs
Head Down
The Frail
The Wretched
Gave Up
The Warning
Ghosts 5
Ghosts 21
Ghosts 19
Ghosts Piggy
The Greater Good
Terrible Lie
Ghosts 31
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole
God Given
In This Twilight

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Decemberists in Boston 11/6/08

To hell with the fact that they’re now on a major label – when I think “indie,” I think Decemberists. Though as a definition the term is all but meaningless these days, The Decemberists embody all the vague associations I still have with it. Quirky sensibilities that seems blissfully oblivious to the current Top 40, a focus on melody and tunecraft, a do-it-yourself fan-friendly attitude. I discovered The Decemberists long ago, and they were first band I thought of as “indie rock.”

I first got the chance to see them in ’07 at Bonnaroo (review here). Though they put on a great show, the clear highlight being them joined by gospel legend Mavis Staples for a cover of “The Weight,” being baked by the sun after three days of camping is not the ideal environment in which to see anyone. The Orpheum Theatre however, much better. Though it’s a bit of a dive, with no leg room and poor ventilation, the fairytales of shipwrecked sailors and chimney sweeps had room to blossom in the dusty hall.

No fairytales blossomed during openers Loch Lomand unfortunately. Like Decemberists Lite, they failed to pull off similar lilting ballads that didn’t couldn’t muster quite the panache of Decemberists songs. As xylophone vied with the lead singer’s chirpy falsetto for prime annoyance, the two girls whose gorgeous harmonies proved they should be front and center were relegated to background singers. Their set proved its worth however upon the delivery of one classic line: “The sound of children laughing make my eyes bleed.”

The Decemberists soon gave Loch Lomand a lesson on how to do alt-folk-rock right, entering the stage to lots of drum pounding and guitar thrashing, building up to their lesser-known “Shanty for the Arethusa” as the crowd exploded. The energy didn’t let up for two hours, songs of wayfarers, wharf rats, and engine drivers presented grandly and theatrically.

Though they touched on all their albums during the set, the focus, and the reason for the tour, was the singles series Always the Bridesmaid they’ve been slowly releasing this fall. Throughout the night they performed all the original songs off that, and though most of the audience was unfamiliar with them (3 out of the 5 had not yet been released) they more measured up to the older material.

Also drawing four songs from their most recent standard release The Crane Wife, the Decemberists turned two ten-minute-plus tunes into the highlight of the night. “Islands” and “The Perfect Crime #2” have been fleshed out over a year of constant touring to be different beasts on stage, the former in particular going through movement after movement, instrumental after instrumental, excursion after excursion as it slowly built.

Unquestionably the star of the show, Colin Meloy proved himself a charismatic frontman as well, venturing into the audience to sing and gallivant down the aisles and telling anecdotes about his adventures with his girlfriend’s mother along Boston’s Freedom Trail.

More than anything though, the topic on his mind was Barack Obama. If tonight was one thing, it was a concert, but if it was two things, it was also a political rally. Needless to say he was preaching to the choir, but time and time again he extolled the change coming to America, always in his humorous self-deprecating way. “Yes we can!” chants broke out periodically, some initiated by Meloy (“When I say ‘Yes we can!,’ you say ‘Yes we did!’”), others not. Meloy avoided complete punditry with a sense of humor though, introducing “The Chimbley Sweep” by saying this was the text of Obama’s recent speech on Fox News, interspersing side commentaries as the sing progressed. Michelle even got a verse of her own, sung by the band’s token XX chromosome, Jenny Conlee.

The most powerful political statement though was the one left unspoken. Upon the encore the band finally obliged the shouted requests for “Sons and Daughters,” taking the audience one step further by inviting them onstage to sing along. Seeing the mass of young people crowding a stage singing, “Here all the bombs fade away” in unison proved more inspiring than any speech.

Shanty for the Arethusa
July, July!
Valerie Plame
O New England
The Engine Driver
On the Bus Mall
The Island: Come & See – The Landlord – You’ll Not Feel the Drowning
The Perfect Crime #2
Days of Elaine
Record Year for Rainfall
Dracula’s Daughter
O Valencia!
The Culling of the Fold
The Chimbley Sweep
16 Military Wives
Raincoat Song
Sons and Daughters