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“This one is for us,” Trent Reznor told a sweat-dripping, writhing crowd packed into the 400-capacity Los Angeles club the Troubadour on Tuesday night to see Nine Inch Nails. Everyone screamed. “We’re going to f–k around and play some stuff we feel like playing tonight.”
Of course, for such an iconic group, who released their eighth album Hesitation Marks via Columbia the same day, there are certain numbers you’re basically obligated to include in any performance, regardless of whether it’s a special album release show in a diminutive venue. But for this nearly two-hour performance, it seemed the band — which includes guitarist Robin Finck, drummer Ilan Rubin, keyboardist/synth player Alessandro Cortini and bassist Josh Eustis — drew its real power from its location rather than its set list selection, aptly levying the novelty of a non-stadium show and unleashing their brutally raw force inside the tiny venue. Stripped of their typical high-end stage production, NIN were accompanied only by some white smoke and a few lights — a reminder that there is a distinctly different skill to compel an arena than to engage a club full of people so close they can reach your feet.
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Reznor and his current lineup of hired guns found their groove midway through the performance. After a darkly pulsating rendition of “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a hit from 1997 that featured David Bowie on the original track and in the video, you could almost see the gears click, each aspect of the band synching perfectly to embody the intimate sensibility required for such a small room.
The more aggressive songs worked best, particularly toward the end as NIN railed through a series of notable hits, veering rapidly from new single “Come Back Haunted” to “Wish,” then to “Survivalism,” “Burn,” “The Hand That Feeds” and set closer “Head Like a Hole.” It was a neatly balanced, brutally delivered sequence that showcased the undeniable dominion of the band.
“I’m kind of freaked out because normally we have places we can hide onstage,” Renzor told the audience, which included Tony Hawk, as well as members of Pennywise, Alkaline Trio and No Doubt. “Usually by this part of the set, we’ve been replaced by robots and we’re backstage, relaxing and catching up on Breaking Bad.”
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Despite the designation of the concert as an album release show, NIN only performed three songs from Hesitation Marks, a release that contains less of the pure fury some of the group’s formative releases have centered on. In the end, though, Reznor reminded the crowd that it’s not always about the ferocity of the punch. To wit: the band’s encore consisted of instrumental “La Mer,” a version of 1999 single “The Day The World Went Away” and a notably evocative performance of “Hurt.” The lights dimmed, Reznor’s biceps gleaming with sweat as he leaned over the microphone stand, and it became clear that the impact NIN truly hopes to have is an emotional one. It’s on these quieter songs, with the brash aggression pulled away, that Reznor seems most comfortable expressing himself.
Certainly it was not a perfect show (although several audience members remarked on how the musicians never missed a single note), but it was iconic for reasons beyond the initial novelty of Nine Inch Nails headlining The Troubadour. A truly good band should be able to perform at a massive festival like Made In America one day and connect with a surging, sticky room of 400 people the next. For NIN that skill is like riding a bike: a bit sluggish at first, but by the end, they were flying.
“Best Tuesday ever!” one audience member hollered toward the end of the evening. No argument there.
The Beginning of the End
March of the Pigs
The Line Begins to Blur
The Frail / The Wretched
I’m Afraid of Americans
I Am Sanctified
Find My Way
Came Back Haunted
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole
La Mer / The Day the World Went Away
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