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As the first day of Boston Calling winded down, the anticipation at Green Stage escalated for the first headliner of the festival: Nine Inch Nails. The rock project, which got its start in Cleveland, certainly attracted the biggest crowd of festival-goers, all impatiently waiting to see producer and master curator Trent Reznor — as well as which musical Avengers he would assemble for this live performance (Reznor has a history of constantly changing up his backing musicians on tour).
With Atticus Ross as the only other official member, the band’s touring roster remains somewhat of a mystery for every tour. This time around, it featured Robin Finck on guitar, Alessandro Cortini on the bass, and Ilan Rubin on the drums: The show promised to be one for the books.
The road to their performance at the festival was rocky. Not only did the band step in for the Foo Fighters — who were originally scheduled to headline on Friday prior to the passing of drummer Taylor Hawkins — they also would go on to cover the Saturday headliner position instead of The Strokes. With less than an hour to go before their Friday performance, Boston Calling issued the following announcement to festival goers: “Due to a positive COVID case in The Strokes, who were scheduled to headline on Saturday, May 28th, the band will no longer be able to perform at the Festival. Tonight's headliner, Nine Inch Nails, will headline a second set…”
Not only did the announcement come as a shock to festival goers, but to Reznor as well. “We’re very happy to be here with you tonight,” he said, “relentless of the strain of never-ending bad news.” The appreciation for the crowd carried on throughout the set, and there were many times where Reznor expressed that he was “really grateful” that the fans were there with him that night.
The shift in performance was very evident: Knowing that they had tomorrow’s second headline slot, Friday’s performance felt like a prelude.
The stage design was identical for both days; cages interspersed between each of the musicians, light beams emanating from in between the bars casting the crowd in gray shades. The colors would change on theme, with deep blue and pink iridescent backgrounds for the sorrowful tracks like “Only,” while red strobing lights left a carnal afterimage effect during their more sensual songs, like “The Perfect Drug.” The industrial beams were a direct reflection of the industrial rock genre Nine Inch is known for: that instrumental-heavy, reworked, and grunge sound featured on songs like “The Hand That Feeds” and “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” off the album “With Teeth.” When interspersed with their more synthetic, experimental, and transcendental sounds like “Closer” and “Hurt,” from their album “The Downward Spiral,” the set comes together to be soulful and introspective yet not overbearingly bleak, the lyrics resonating with the audio echoes.
Day one fans were treated to debut album “Pretty Hate Machine” crowd favorites like “Head Like a Hole,” which was full of instrument heavy interludes where the guitar and drums played off each other. Having been performing for 40+ years, the musicians behind those instruments also put on quite the show. As a seasoned performer, Reznor commanded the audience in the quiet solo moments, silencing the crowd with just a flick of his fingers. He proved himself to be a hard worker on stage, holding notes until his voice strained with exhaustion. As quite an emotional performer, Reznor could often be seen crossing his arms behind his back during the somber interludes. The band joined in on the act with hands thrown up to hype the crowd during their cover of Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” as the thematic stage lights flashed red, white, and blue. Rubin worked exceptionally hard to execute an impressive drum solo that got cheers from the crowd as his curly hair bounced along with the beat.
As the rhythmic percussion-heavy dance beat got the crowd grooving during “Sanctified,” the LED displays cast the band in a chiaroscuro shadow on the wall, a malicious, sinister feel that paralleled the lyrics “Heaven’s just a rumor she’ll dispel.” The lights turned to the audience to sing along with the chorus, eliciting literal head bangers. The effervescent quality underlying these tracks was emphasized by the last somber notes of “Hurt” reverberating for minutes as people exited the stadium.
When they came back around on Saturday, Nine Inch Nails had something to prove — and that was evident in their setlist. While Friday’s set was more or less synth-heavy industrial rock, Saturday’s variety felt much more diverse.
Perhaps it was due to the addition of some of their most recent works, like 2018’s “God Break Down the Door” — which took the crowd by storm even though the track could not sound more different and unique compared to the rest of their discography.
The effect was undeniable: Nine Inch Nails brought a new energy to Saturday’s performance, picking up right where they left off and adding a new spice and intensity to their setlist. They made it an overall more upbeat and heavy-hitting performance.
Reznor himself felt revitalized, stealing the show with his energetic vocal delivery of the punchy lines while also picking up a tambourine to contribute to the beat of “Every Day Is Exactly the Same.” The band was also in on the mission, the escalating steady drum beat driving the tempo up for the guitar and keys, their cumulative sound more vivid than the recorded version. Even the lights felt more dynamic during songs like “Suck,” where the spotlight turned to shine on the crowd in the echoing question “How does it feel?” and interacting with the Boston crowd throughout the performance.
Instead of bringing a defeated or tired attitude to their set, Reznor was handing out good-natured jibes for the crowd like “It's probably a good time to mention that we’re not The Strokes,” and that the festival “can’t fucking get rid of us.” He took a moment to reflect on his career, noting his humble beginnings recording “Pretty Hate Machine” in Boston. “If you would’ve told me at any point that we’e the reliable band I would’ve said you’re out of your fucking mind,” he said with a laugh before jokingly adding “so if you have a birthday party or a bar mitzvah…”
Although nothing overtly changed about their set, the band’s energy was completely different the second time around. Even in playing the same final songs from the day before in the same exact order, the delivery was so energetic that it revitalized the audience, making the finale that much grander the second time around.
Boston Calling saw Nine Inch Nails accomplish the impossible last weekend: Despite the bad weather and the Covid hiccups, the Boston crowd was not left disappointed. Even for the festival goers who attended both nights, it wasn't like going to the same concert twice; it was more like a two-part narrative that complemented the constantly evolving sounds the band is known for.
—Staff writer Alisa S. Regassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @alisaregassa.
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