It would be easy to dismiss a show like this as something aging fans of '90s alternative rock take their kids to. But Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden still have plenty of intellect and challenging music. And opener Oneohtrix Point Never, an experimental electronic and ambient artist, likely challenged the sensibilities of more than a handful of people in attendance.
What the show proved is that bands that slightly pre-date the alternative rock era and continued through its eras collapse still have an enthusiastic audience. They can also still produce new work that pushes their existing artistic boundaries.
That Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden put out some of their best work in the last two years instead of relying on a misguided sense of nostalgia could be seen in the performances.
Long before the sun set, if you were entangled in the less-than-fantastic parking situation, you could hear Oneohtrix Point Never's music echoing off the walls of the venue like somniloquy of a sea god -- deep tones and finely textured white noise with slow-building melodies. But inside the venue proper, Daniel Lopatain's projections gave that music a more mathematical analog of geometric shapes and summer-colored hues. His combination of analog and digital sounds probably left a few people unsatisfied and confused but he found some new, or perhaps even existing, fans who showered him with cheers when he shut down his gear and waved to the audience with a smile.
Since reforming in 2010, Soundgarden may not be as wild as they were in, say, the late '80s. But the group just sounds better and even more confident in its powers these days. Last night, longtime drummer Matt Cameron wasn't on stage, as he's now touring with Pearl Jam. Instead it was Matt Chamberlain (who played in Pearl Jam himself, several years back, as well as in Tori Amos' band and with the house band for Saturday Night Live). There's no replacing a drummer as unique and talented as Cameron. However, Chamberlain sure seemed to have Cameron's style down and played with the kind of finesse and power required in the unusual dynamics of Soundgarden's songwriting.
Chris Cornell was chattier than usual and engaged the audience a bit while making lighthearted, self-deprecating jokes including how he forgot whether or not "I Awake" was on Louder Than Love or another album. He said he always forgot which album songs were from now, having just turned fifty the night. If he's old, may we all live to be that spry and emotionally charged. Ben Shepherd tried to get the audience to sing happy birthday to Cornell but no one took the lead and he expressed his disappointment in no uncertain terms. Moments later some people tried but it devolved into an incoherent mess that never resolved. Better luck next time, Denver.
All such interludes aside, the band seemed to be in a good mood and the normally stoic Kim Thayil cracked a smile toward the end of "Jesus Christ Pose." He looked as though amused by something he saw and looked to his bandmates for confirmation on whether they noticed the same thing.
Though mostly sticking to the hits you'd hope to see at the show, some surprises, like the rarely performed, and aforementioned, "I Awake" and "Let Me Drown" provided some nice nods for longtime fans. In the background, a colorful series of projections ran, including the silhouette of the antlered woman, streaming weatherscapes and, with "Slaves & Bulldozers," a flight of bombers coming forth from the screen in red and black.
Continue reading for a recap of Nine Inch Nails and set lists
In the interest of keeping the visual presentation of the show fresh and difficult to spoil for audiences, rather than starting off with a bombardment of lights and sound, Trent Reznor took to the stage, which looked unfinished, with just a small synth or a sampler and started off with "Copy Of A." And over time, various members came on and crew brought on gear piece by piece, including microphones. It was unorthodox, but as the set progressed and more lights were used, the effect was profound, going from pure light to cast shadow on to the backdrop gave way to LED screens dazzling us with a wide range of visual imagery from pointillistic stars ebbing and flowing, on and on.
The visuals highlighted how Reznor's music over the years has just become more diverse. His way of integrating raw sound and music together never fully settles down to anything but a loose aesthetic -- one that has changed quite a bit as well since Pretty Hate Machine came out in 1989. The dub-like treatment on "Terrible Lie" is in so many ways superior to the original, and it still preserved the sense of hysteria and the abrupt dynamics.
Pulling from virtually every album in the catalog, the band made it seem of a piece even as the visual equipment on stage moved to accommodate the mood to be conveyed in the song including a moment where Reznor seemed enshrouded with three of the large panels to accentuate the sense of isolation. During "Me, I'm Not" a wave of flowing green lights served as a backdrop along an entire length of screens so that it looked like what might be described as "absinthe borealis."
Though Reznor and crew played a longer set (just like Soundgarden), it never dragged. The dynamics and the set list seemed dialed-in to make an impact without overstaying a welcome. Not that anyone in attendance would have complained about hearing more songs, but ending as it did with an encore of "Hurt" after a blow out of a closing song in "Head Like a Hole," it felt like the perfect length for a show like this, where there is so much stimulation.
With what looked like a smaller production to make the appropriate room for essentially a co-headliner, Nine Inch Nails somehow maximized its potential by doing more original visual arrangements throughout including a song where no real LEDs or other than white lights were used and for a moment it felt like seeing the band at any other rock club but obviously on a much larger scale.
Soundgarden Set List for Red Rocks, July 21, 2014
1. Searching With My Good Eye Closed 2. Spoonman 3. I Awake 4. Let Me Drown 5. Rusty Cage 6. Black Hole Sun 7. Outshined 8. Jesus Christ Pose 9. Like Suicide 10. The Day I Tried to Live 11. My Wave 12. Fell On Black Days 13. A Thousand Days Before 14. Superunknown 15. Slaves & Bulldozers
Nine Inch Nails Set List for Red Rocks, July 21, 2014
1.Copy Of A 2. Sanctified 3. Came Back Haunted 4. 1,000,000 5. March Of the Pigs 6. Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now) 7. Terrible Lie 8. Closer 9. Gave Up 10. Me, I'm Not 11. Find My Way 12. The Great Destroyer 13. [breakcore instrumental] 14. Eraser 15. Wish 16. Only 17. The Hand That Feeds 18. Head Like a Hole
Encore 19. Hurt
Bias: Already a bit of a fan of all three acts of the night.
Random Detail: Ran into Laura Keeney of the Denver Post and Paul Alexander of Action Friend at the show.
By the Way: Never really had a problem with parking and getting out of Red Rocks before tonight and I'm not a newbie.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.