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Review: Nine Inch Nails’ ACL taping

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Chad Swiatecki

Editor’s note: This article was originally published November 5, 2013

Along with putting together one of the most storied music programs in American history, one of Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona’s more subtle talents is selling and hyping the band about to take the stage during his pre-show introductions.

Whether it be for a veteran band sizing down to the theater-sized stage at ACL Live for a special occasion or a young artist making a jump toward the big time, his stage patter is a necessary and dutifully performed bit of show business routine during tapings. And it’s forgivable if, on occasion, Lickona has to slightly oversell and pump up a band’s resume to make the performance feel as special and unique as possible.

He needed none of that practiced chutzpah on Monday night as members of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails waited in the wings, saying simply – and echoing the thoughts of many in the sold-out crowd – that prior to last week he never imagined the show that was about to happen would ever happen. Simply put, adding Trent Reznor’s namesake to the alumni list that’s grown from Willie Nelson to a include a fairly broad and far-reaching umbrella of modern music felt like a declaration that nothing is off limits as the show approaches its 40th year in 2014.

That declaration felt and sounded like a zealous arena and festival headliner that spent 90 minutes cramming its percussive and often abrasive wall of sound into an intimate venue the size of which it hasn’t had to play in perhaps two decades.

The set was heavy with material from the band’s last decade or so, with songs that have NIN’s trademark loathing and emotional bloodletting going on lyrically but on first impact lack the instant hooks of its early output.

That made much of the performance a study in textures and mood, with Reznor’s seven backing instrumentalists and singers starting with the throbbing and occasionally jazzy “All Time Low,” moving to the tribal and jungle/EDM feel of “Sanctified” and the stark “Disappointed,” where a ukulele and a bizarre one-stringed instrument that seemed like the offspring of a violin and a theremin made an appearance and added to the anything-goes feel on the night.

Given the promotional nature of the public television program it was understandable that newer songs made up the bulk of the show and the graphic lyrics of hits like “Closer” or “Happiness In Slavery” made their absence understandable if still lamented.

One wonders, though, how bonkers a run through classics like “Head Like A Hole,” “Wish,” “March Of The Pigs” or “Terrible Lie” would’ve made the animated but restrained crowd that had to stay out of the camera vantage points needed for recording. The high RPMs and aggression of those songs probably made them a bridge too far for this outing, showing that there are still some limits even as the TV show broadens its horizons to previously unimagined expanses.

The one certified hit on the night was the band’s show-closing run through the restrained and confessional “Hurt,” which slowly built as Reznor did a sort of lyrical slow dance with a lifetime of loathing and doubt that led up to the hammer drop of noise and dissonance that marked the song and the performance’s close.

It was a bucket list moment for many in the audience – seeing such an outsized classic done in an intimate setting – that will present something of a quandary to Lickona and the show’s editing staff because of a single unmistakable expletive in the song’s second verse. Cutting the song from the broadcast would neuter it of its unquestionable highlight, so perhaps the Nine Inch Nails show will mark another first for Austin City Limits; the use of the bleep button.

Set list:

All Time Low

Sanctified

Disappointed

Came Back Haunted

Copy Of A

The Frail/The Wretched

Find My Way

Various Methods Of Escape

Satellite

Running

I Would For You

The Big Come Down

Survivalism

Even Deeper

In This Twilight

While I’m Still Here

Hurt