All hail the Los Angeles public transportation system – or at least the offshoot of it that ran loops around the Hollywood Bowl this past Saturday evening. For a mere three dollars I found myself aboard a exquisite white chariot, smashed up against some of my closest acquaintances, enjoying a half-hour long tour of the hills that would take an average vehicle around seven minutes. Still, about midway through my travel adventure, I think I made a new friend. Sitting across from me, looking comfortable though decidedly out of place, was a casual-yet-conservatively dressed older couple who seemed content to sit quietly and take in the loud, pungently intoxicated crowd around them. Never one to miss out on the opportunity to chat it up with random strangers, my friend eyed the two suspiciously before launching into a judgmental inquiry as to just what they were doing at a Nine Inch Nails concert.
The remainder of my journey was spent in a whirlwind Q&A with the man who nonchalantly introduced himself as Robert Hillburn – yes, THAT Robert Hillburn. Before I had a chance to offer myself up as a personal slave to one of L.A.’s most legendary rock music critics, the three of us had embarked upon a discussion that spanned the career of the multi-faceted and multi-talented Trent Reznor. Listening intently to the close of an impromptu speech he gave on modern rock history (and feeling decidedly unworthy throughout it), we hastily said our goodbyes and left behind us part one of our brush with musical greatness.
Part two must of course be spent discussing the artistic merits and performance capabilities of one particular industrial rock icon. Going strong (minus a few drug battles and rehab stints) since 1988, Nine Inch Nails has always been Reznor’s brainchild, and now more than ever this seems evident on stage. A slew of cancelled shows, (due to drummer Jerome Dillon’s “mystery illness”) flanked Saturday’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl, but things seemed to go off without a hitch as the band pounded through cuts off of the recently released With Teeth. Reznor embodied his once-waning rock star persona most noticeably during heavy hitters like Teeth’s “You Know What You Are?” and The Downward Spiral’s “March of the Pigs,” pacing from stage end to stage end like a guitar-wielding lion between choruses. Despite the absence of an encore, the band delivered an impressive 22-song set list that left few to dispute Reznor’s knack for poignant lyricism and controversial presentation.
Mid-set a curtain-covered stage flashed images of Chernobyl victims, Vietnam casualties, wildlife hunts as smiling images of the President and First Lady waltzed along to “Right Where It Belongs” and “Beside You In Time.” The simultaneously stunning and startling images seemed to do their job as an eerily quiet audience allowed the message to resonate while Reznor’s angered vocals carried over the hillside.
An equally notable (though far less agenda-driven) performance by Queens of the Stone Age opened the show with swaggering gusto. Josh Homme and his cohorts pounded through a surprisingly lengthy set as they commended the normally holier-than-thou L.A. audience for swallowing its collective pride and showing up early. Standout performances included a well-coifed Homme dedicating “Burn The Witch” to the few seats that still stood empty towards the close of their performance.
If there were a part three, it might include a play-by-play of the two-hour long trek back down the Hollywood hillside, or a description of the wild antics of our post-show bus mates. Instead, I’d like to imagine the night ending as abruptly as the concert itself; confidently climaxing in the final chords of ” Head Like A Hole,” then fading into a wash of white light and the realization that Nine Inch Nails can still live up to the hype.