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In their mid-90s heyday, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails, while both always critically acclaimed heavy rock outfits, occupied two sides of the cultural equation, with the former lumped into the flannel-clad grunge crowd and the latter a sort of Goth-industrial remnant soundtracking the lives of trenchcoat-wearing moodsters afraid to look you in the eye.
But today, on tour as co-headliners this summer for the first time, and both celebrating the 20th anniversary of their most seminal albums, it’s clear they were peers all along: both groups market pummeling riffs, hard-headed beats, and an urge for connectivity that often is overlooked in music from that era. With their audience at the Hollywood Bowl Monday night also grownups now (salt-and-pepper beards and paunch were fashion statements instead of Doc Martens and eyeliner), the two bands’ run could be viewed as a nostalgia-fest, and that wouldn’t be all-wrong, but it’s more than that, too: it’s a statement of purpose, relevance and influence — to which both bands delivered, unquestionably, on all counts.
Although Soundgarden’s revival has been hit-and-miss (the band reunited in 2011 to much hysteria, but early reviews were mixed and their comeback album, 2012’s King Animal, was met with a tepid response) at the Bowl they were a beast unleashed, perhaps buoyed by being awed by the venue.
“We’ve wanted to play here as a band since the Brady Bunch played here,” Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell said early during the band’s hourlong set. “This is a f—ing dream come true.” With that, the band — including original members Kim Thayil, whose guitar cut through the Hollywood night Ginsu-style, and bassist Ben Shepherd as well as veteran drummer Matt Chamberlain filling in for Matt Cameron — destroyed “Gun,” a multi-tempo throwback from their seminal 1989 release Louder Than Love. Indeed, they played with a precision and confidence that the members would have had a hard time managing back in the day, while Cornell’s voice, especially his upper-register scream, was as powerful as it’s ever been. By the time they got to set closers “Black Hole Sun” and the esoteric, political “Beyond The Wheel” they seemed like a band transformed — and reformed.
Nine Inch Nails’ live shows have always been composed art pieces accented by synchronized hits and catharsis, and their night-closing slot was no different: frontman Trent Reznor emerged, solo, with the house lights still on to set off his sampler and begin “Copy Of A Copy,” building the band Stop Making Sense-style in front of screens that projected each member’s silhouette in superhuman-size. The screens are then moved — by people, not on a track — to give different vibes throughout the set, ranging from massive video screens showing Negativland-style found footage during “Eraser” to see-through light scrims during the taunting “Piggy.” For “Closer,” Nails’ biggest, brashest hit, Reznor’s face was projected for the first verse with him nowhere in sight. Then, the screens parted ways for the chorus, revealing him, hiding in a refrigerator-sized compartment behind them, glaring and growling directly into a camera, a brilliant way to convey intimacy in a monstrous space.
Yes, it’s sometimes hard to believe a happily married, ultra-successful man approaching 50 still finds himself living in woe-is-me-lyrics from his 20s (“Can this world really be as sad as it seems,” he screams — nightly — during “Terrible Lie”), but theater has always been a part of rock music, and Reznor has become one of the all-time masters of that domain. That Soundgarden has also stepped up its game for this tour makes one thing absolutely clear: that here is a pairing of bands not only proving they’re still ready for the ring, but that they can deliver a solid, dastardly one-two knockout punch.
Searching With My Good Eye Closed
Jesus Christ Pose
The Day I Tried to Live
Fell on Black Days
A Thousand Days Before
Black Hole Sun
Beyond the Wheel
Nine Inch Nails:
Copy of A
Came Back Haunted
March of the Pigs
Find My Way
The Great Destroyer
The Hand That Feeds
Head Like a Hole
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