LIVE: Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, Sleep Country Amphitheater, Ridgefield, WA

Nine Inch Nails // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

By Hollister Dixon // Photos by Yousef Hatlani

Okay look: you don’t need me to introduce Soundgarden or Nine Inch Nails. If you’re reading this review, you know these bands. We all know these bands. People who think they don’t know these bands know them, and if you don’t believe me, just find anyone who says they don’t, and play “Closer” or “Black Hole Sun” for them. They’ll know. These are two bands (yes, for the sake of brevity, let’s call Nine Inch Nails a band, rather than a steadily changing cast of characters that helps Trent Reznor be incredible) that somehow managed to outlast everyone in their respective classes, failing to fade into obscurity to the point where they’ve become (in a lot of circles, at least) highly respected acts that now put on arena-sized shows and command arena-sized audiences, and have truly earned it.

Cold Cave // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

But before we talk more about those two bands, let’s start somewhere a lot of people aren’t starting: with Cold Cave. Cold Cave went on at roughly 7:00pm, at a time where the sun was still shining, the weather was still pleasantly warm, and people were milling around, getting seats, and buying unreasonably priced domestic beer. A million miles away from here (or, at least, back in Portland), Cold Cave would have the crowd wrapped around their finger, as Wesley Eisold crooned and hollered into the space like a gothic Stephin Merritt, with his collaborator/keyboardist Amy Lee (no, not that Amy Lee, a different one) helping churn out massive, beautiful, jaunty beats that compel you to dance and feel. But out here in a massive amphitheater, the band doesn’t whip the crowd into the frenzy they deserved, and despite my immense enjoyment of the set, I feel slightly let down by not getting to see the band on top of their game, and only get 25 minutes to do their thing. This set also made me wonder if the tour’s original support, the late, great Death Grips, would have been met with the same fate of having their punishingly aggressive and obscenely visceral stage show lost on a crowd filing in while eating from those long bags of popcorn. As excited as I was for that, it’s hard to not be glad that I didn’t see that.

Soundgarden // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

Alright, so are you ready for something truly absurd about Soundgarden‘s touring history? Since they began playing live, this is only their 6th time playing a Portland show: three at the long-gone Pine Street Theater (which is, funnily enough, where Nine Inch Nails played during their first two Portland shows), once in 1992 at the long-gone Fox Theater, and another last year at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall – and then here, in an 18,000-seat venue. Not a bad rate of growth, right? Despite their humble beginnings, it’s unsurprising that Chris Cornell & Co. are so adept at knowing how to work not only with a massive stage, but with a massive crowd: they’re the epitome of showmen, and the crowd responded by showing them an immense amount of love and admiration during each and every song. They began the performance with a blistering performance of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, before transitioning into Superunknown superjam “Spoonman”, bouncing between runs of Superunknown and Badmotorfinger tracks, punctuated by a single King Animal track (“A Thousand Days Before”), and closing with “Black Hole Sun” (my personal, cliched favorite Soundgarden song) and Ultramega OK‘s monolithic “Beyond the Wheel”. Each song seemed to inspire more rapturous cheering than the last, and it was hard to not feel inspired by the whole thing, even as a casual fan of the band.

Soundgarden // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

It certainly didn’t hurt that the band’s stage presence and setup were immaculate. Chris Cornell is an incredibly charismatic frontman, strutting along the edge of the stage almost constantly, kneeling at the edge and high-fiving the fortunate few perched along the barrier, and generally making the whole place feel like a much, much smaller venue. Combined with the rest of the band’s massive talents (I can’t sing Kim Thayil’s praises enough, about his guitar playing or his Mastodon-shirt-wearing, and Ben Shepherd is an absolute bass beast), and the absolutely beautiful light show, it felt like I was watching something truly special. Seriously, though, I can’t state this part enough: that was the most beautiful and almost hypnotic lighting/screen setup I’ve ever seen. I got so many pictures of it all, just because I felt compelled to capture it. Even when my attention waned, I was reeled back in by just how fantastic everything looked and sounded. Had the show ended here, I honestly could have gone home happy.

Nine Inch Nails // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

But, the show was nowhere near over. Half an hour after the band finished, a black-clad man wandered onstage with an MPC and triggered “Copy Of A” with the house lights still blaring, and revitalized my respect for the song. In a beautifully Stop Making Sense maneuver, the night’s other players each took their spots one by one, and as the song bloomed, a series of white panels were moved into place behind each member, casting long black shadows behind them. I’d heard a lot of stories about the intricacies of Nine Inch Nails as a performing band, and despite all of this, seeing the band performing on an almost bare stage, accompanied by nothing but shadows, was a truly welcome experience. Such is the tightness of the band’s performance that almost all cords were invisible, making everything feel crisp and clean, and almost Kraftwerk-esque. This cleanness is an unspoken theme during the performance, and with everyone so separated from each other, it was hard to not feel a strangely Kraftwerk-esque distance between the players.

It’s hard to talk about Nine Inch Nails’ music in a live setting without also talking about stage aesthetic, because in Trent Reznor’s world, the two are elegantly intertwined. Though everything is such a big undertaking, the use of the space and with tasteful practical effects feel almost organic at times, with a reasonable amount of emphasis given to minimalist function above overblown insanity. They performed in tandem with seven LED panels (those white panels moved into place at the beginning), constantly being shifted and moved throughout each and every song, almost acting as an unsung member of the group. They were moved into walls and any number of configurations, at times shielding Reznor from the crowd, other times being pulled to the side to reveal him like an aggressive, sweaty Wizard of Oz (a moment which happened during “Closer”, when two screens projecting his constantly moving face moved to show him singing into a camera). The screen’s projections were almost hypnotic, with songs like “The Great Destroyer” getting a glitchy, pixelated, found-footage pastiche replete with shots of talking head politicians, or “Disappointed” receiving the surprise visual highlight of the night, with all of his displays lined up and projecting a series of moving and changing white rectangles, creating a stunning 3D effect (for those curious parties, Reznor’s wife/How To Destroy Angels singer Mariqueen Maandig shared this hyperlapse video of the song’s visuals at the Hollywood Bowl). Even the simple calming blues projected behind the band during “Find My Way”, or the black-and-white imagery of snakes and desolate landscapes that accompanied “Hurt”, were stunning in their own ways. I honestly feel confident in saying that, based on stage show alone, Nine Inch Nails are the greatest live act I’ve ever seen, and I hate that previous tours were on an even bigger scale.

Nine Inch Nails // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

“But what about the music?” you may be asking yourself. And that’s a fair question: it should go without saying that an artist like Trent Reznor, who plans every little detail to the point where he’s throwing everything, from LED panels to shadows, into his stage setup, is going to be a massively talented performer. And that’s almost an understatement, really: Reznor is a man that managed to make a song with a chorus that starts “I want to fuck you like an animal” into a megahit that makes stadiums and amphitheaters stand up and sing along at the top of their lungs, and this is something that repeats for every single song. At this stage in his career, Reznor could be forgiven for being a slouch and phoning it in, but he absolutely never does; each and every song is transformed into a beautiful beast, from all-out classics like “Terrible Lie” and “Eraser”, to newer songs like “Came Back Haunted” and “Find My Way” (a brand new favorite of mine after that performance), or even the arguably middling “The Hand That Feeds” from the so-so With Teeth, and it’s a pleasure to watch every one of them. The band performed 8 songs that are at least 20 years old (five from The Downward Spiral, and three from Pretty Hate Machine), but each of those songs sounded like they could have been written yesterday, considering the freshness of every moment. And, just like Soundgarden before them, the crowd ate up every single moment, even going as far as to unironically hold up lighters during the finale that was “Hurt”. And I don’t fault anyone for doing something so corny; it just felt right.

Though the crowd was sometimes weird, it was truly wonderful to be in the presence of two bands still on top of their games after all of these years, playing to fans that seem to have never wavered in their love for these acts. I hope that all three of the bands that played there will find their way back to the Northwest very, very soon, because there’s no way I’m going to miss any of it.

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