The farewell tour is one of the most worn-out clichés in all of rock. Whenever a band announces it is breaking up, suspicion always arises that these claims are being made merely to sell a few extra tickets and to generate excitement for the reunion tour a year later. Everyone from the Who to the Smashing Pumpkins has fallen into this trap at one point, and the Eagles even displayed enough self-awareness to dub one recent such trek the “Farewell Tour: Part I.”
With that said, I am inclined to believe Trent Reznor when he says that the current run of Nine Inch Nails club dates is the end of touring life for his alt-rock powerhouse. Since getting sober and releasing his 2005 comeback album With Teeth, Reznor has been touring and recording pretty much constantly, and in the process has set a sterling example for how a band can succeed on his level without a record label. For him to want to take a break after five years of nonstop work is understandable. He deserves it. Not only that, but Reznor got engaged earlier this year for the first time, and has expressed frustration that a life of constant touring has left almost no time to have a personal life. Reznor is well into his 40s, and the fact that his engagement coincides with his retirement from the road makes perfect sense.
And besides, Reznor has repeatedly stated that he does not want to wind up like Gene Simmons or Mick Jagger, continuing to hash out “Head Like a Hole” in basketball arenas well past the point of self-parody. He wants to quit while he’s ahead, and judging by NIN’s Sept. 2 show at the Hollywood Palladium (the first of four Los Angeles shows that will cap off the farewell tour), Reznor is quitting at the top of his game.
Even while battling a cold, Reznor was in terrific voice, leading his NIN bandmates (guitarist Robin Finck, bassist Justin Mendal-Johnsen, and drummer Ilan Rubin) through a wide-ranging two-hour set that ran the gamut from a start-to-finish performance of his classic 1994 album The Downward Spiral to more recent material from last year’s The Slip to a surprise guest appearance by Gary Numan.
NIN had already performed Spiral at a recent New York show, so it didn’t take long for fans to catch on when the band took the stage and tore into “Mr. Self Destruct.” As I wrote in an earlier column, the full-album performance is making a comeback, and The Downward Spiral is one of the best ideas to emerge from that trend. Put back into their original context, the live staples “March of the Pigs” and “Closer” felt fresh and new. This lean, stripped-down version of NIN lent itself well crushing versions of album tracks like “The Becoming,” “I Do Not Want This,” “Eraser,” and especially “Reptile.” Rubin in particular provided a level of rawness not seen since NIN’s earliest incarnations.
After closing the Spiral portion of the show with a predictably jaw-dropping rendition of “Hurt,” the band launched into a much looser set that drew heavily on 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, 1991’s Broken, and last year’s The Slip. Despite apologizing several times for being sick, Reznor sounded great the entire night. The band was absurdly tight, nailing the stop-start riffing of “Terrible Lie” and the mechanical rhythms of “Suck.”
When Reznor initially announced this farewell tour, he hinted at the possibility of surprise guests. At earlier shows, he brought out Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy to cover Joy Division. At the Palladium, he introduced ‘80s synth-pop icon Gary Numan, explaining that Numan’s Tubeway Army played an integral role in shaping NIN’s early sound. He then let Numan lead his band through terrific readings of “Metal” and “Cars,” before returning to the spotlight to close the set with raucous versions of “The Hand That Feeds” and “Head Like a Hole.”
It is difficult to imagine any NIN fan being disappointed by the shows Reznor is ending his 20-year run with. I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when he’s sounded better or more confident or led a sharper band. If this really is the end of NIN, Reznor is leaving behind a legacy of consistency, innovation, and class. Between his recent spurning of record labels, the extensive anti-scalping precautions taken at these last shows, the inspired openers he hand-picks (Mew and Queen Kwong both delivered killer warm-up sets at the Palladium), and the impossibly high level on which his band is performing, Reznor is going out of his way for NIN to make the best last impression possible.
9/2/2009 – Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles, California
1.Mr Self Destruct
4.March of the Pigs
8.I Do Not Want This
9.Big Man With a Big Gun
10.A Warm Place
13.The Downward Spiral
17.Lights In The Sky
21.Metal w/ Gary Numan
22. Cars /w Gary Numan
23. The Hand That Feeds
24. Head Like A Hole