Review and photos by Paul Piazza.
Last week, I took the lengthy drive to Wheatland’s Sleep Train Amphitheater to go see Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. A Wednesday-night doubleheader featuring the two venerable greats from the ’90s had long sounded like a great way to celebrate the tail-end of summer. Both groups are celebrating the 20th anniversary of two of their greatest milestones: Soundgarden’s Superunknown and NIN’s The Downward Spiral. They are a pair of fairly brilliant albums steeped in thematic misanthropy and malaise, yet offer a glimpse of tragic hope and kick-ass music. Coincidentally, the albums were released on the same day in 1994.
Each group’s leader (Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and NIN’s Trent Reznor) has continued to thrive creatively since those days. Cornell had great success with Audioslave throughout the first decade of the new millennium and also opened a very successful restaurant in Paris. Reznor, who won an Oscar for the soundtrack to the film The Social Network, has been involved in many creative projects. Both appear to possess a high level of fitness, which can be important when you have just turned 50 like Cornell (Reznor is 49) and are touring the world in a rock band.
As the sun set on the amphitheater, Soundgarden came out behind a hazy curtain to “Searching With My Good Eye Closed.” Many in the lower bowl remained seated until singer and guitarist Cornell exhorted them to “get your asses out of those cheap plastic seats and come up front.” But this is 2014, and it’s always 50-50 whether aging grunge fans will participate or just passively watch. Thankfully, the eager crowd (who seemed to be split between NIN and Soundgarden enthusiasts) complied as the band proceeded to blast through a fantastic set.
Cornell and lead guitarist Kim Thayil, along with bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Chamberlain (filling in for Matt Cameron, who is touring with Pearl Jam) carved up a great selection of songs from Superunknown and 1992’s Badmotorfinger. Cornell’s soaring vocals have often been compared to Robert Plant’s and he did not disappoint on this night. The band saved the best for last with a visceral version of “Rusty Cage,” which Cornell once called “a hillbilly Black Sabbath crossover.” It turned into a jam that could have easily gone on for 30 minutes more with no complaint from the head shaking audience. Finally, after a spacey interlude with “Black Hole Sun,” Soundgarden unleashed a torrent of feedback and rock thunder on the audience with “Beyond the Wheel” a song from the band’s early album Ultramega OK which fuses metal, punk and psychedelia along with some primal shrieks from Cornell.
After a relatively short break, Nine Inch Nails took the stage. Reznor has long threatened to stop touring, but you wouldn’t know it from his energized performance last week. The singer and composer was all over the stage-playing guitar, diving around with the microphone and grinding on the keyboard, a steady waterfall of sweat gushing from his pores. His versatile band—Robin Finck on guitar, Alessandro Cortini on bass and Ilan Rubin on drums—were up to the task of keeping pace as they plowed through a set list of 18 songs that spanned much of the band’s career.
The band came out with “Copy of a” from the recent album Hesitation Marks and then went into a stunning version of “Sanctified” from its 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine. NIN employed an amazingly elaborate stage that morphed as the show progressed. Moving parts, panels with shifting angles, elaborate color schemes, and different instrument configurations all flowed seamlessly as the set progressed. It reached its apex with a high-powered triple-whammy near the end that consisted of “Wish,” “The Hand That Feeds,” and “Head Like a Hole” that had fans dancing frenetically. Finally, there came a strange and beautiful catharsis of an encore with “The Day the World Went Away” and “Hurt” (which Johnny Cash covered)—two songs that characterize the depth and sensitivity of Reznor’s body of work.
After it was over, there was no way to honestly say that one band outperformed the other, because they were both in excellent form. It must be said though, that one of the great advantages to the distant amphitheater is that its open-air design and bowl-shaped lower structure handles sound better than any other large local venue. And on this night, both bands took advantage of that quality. It was well worth the drive.
Below are photos from the show (first two are Soundgarden, last three are Nine Inch Nails).