Nine Inch Nails Performs In Boston: Photos & Setlist

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Words & Images by: Andrew Bruss

Nine Inch Nails :: 10.19-20.2018 :: Wang Theatre :: Boston, MA

Nine Inch Nails slayed their way through nearly 40 different songs over two nights at Boston’s Wang Center as the electro-alt rock pioneers abandoned their cutting-edge stage production in exchange for intimacy and performance flexibility.

Die-hard fans and industry observers alike have watched with dropped jaws as NIN founder and frontman Trent Reznor put on live shows featuring a whirlwind of innovative visual effects that are a full generation ahead of the competition. NIN has used the backdrop of the stage itself as a drum sequencer and recent tours showcased various arrays of transparent LED screens layered throughout the stage that surrounded performers in a visual static Reznor could part at will like Moses and the red sea. U2 has received a lot of great press for the technical design of their most recent tour but the most advanced aspects of the show are copied out of 2008’s NIN production playbook.

Given the way Reznor pushed his stage show into sci-fi territory, fans expect to see something new and exciting whenever the band came to town. Reznor had other ideas this time. Touring in support of a trio of EP’s released over the past two years, he opted for production, which by his standards is much more simple, made up of fog, strobes and a traditional lighting rig. They’ve steered clear of arenas and have played multiple nights per city in the most stunning rooms the market has to offer. In Colorado they played Red Rocks, New York City saw a pair of shows at both Radio City Music Hall and Kings Theatre and in Boston, they played at the Wang Center, a stunning, acoustically pristine theater encrusted in a dazzling gold leaf interior that makes Boston Symphony Hall look like CBGB.

NIN performed songs off 10 different studio releases, covering material from 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine, 2018’s Bad Witch and everything in between. The only songs repeated both nights were “Head Like a Hole” which closes the proper segment of the main set, and the encore-ending “Hurt,” a somber tune that’s integral to Reznor’s legacy and the perfect way to end the night. They played over half of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, a good chunk of 1999’s The Fragile, and the eighth ever performance of “The Perfect Drug,” a song released as part of the soundtrack to David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway. Reznor has personally disparaged the song in interviews and prior to its live debut last month, over 20 years after its release, most fans assumed it would never be performed live. The drum solo on “The Perfect Drug,” was recorded via drum machine and was never intended to be reproduced on an actual drum kit, making its masterful execution by Ilan Rubin that much more impressive. Rubin also plays piano and guitar in the group, highlighting him as another not-so-secret weapon in a group full of heavy hitters.

Bassist Alessandro Cortini had an extensive synthesizer set up featuring a customized modular synth consisting of Eurorack components synched in with an OP-1, a synth popular with the likes of Beck, Thom Yorke and Justin Vernon, as well as an old school four track recorder locked and loaded with a cassette deck. Most of this stuff was barely touched over the course of the two-night stand, but it proved its worth on “The Great Destroyer,” a Year Zero track that strayed from the studio version more than any other they performed and contorted into a heavily experimental jam that sent Cortini head to head with Atticus Ross, a mostly behind the screens collaborator who is arguably the most important member of NIN not named Trent.

Lyrics like “I’d rather die than give you control,” make clear that Reznor rules over NIN with an iron fist, which makes his partnership with Ross that much more significant. Although their work together dates back to 2005’s With Teeth, they didn’t really synch up as collaborators until the all-instrumental 2008 release Ghosts I-IV. Writing credits for the entire project went to both Reznor and Ross, a pairing seen again on the recent EP trilogy. Reznor and Ross share an Oscar for their The Social Network film score and won a Grammy for the soundtrack to Gone Girl. Compared to his band mates, Ross has little experience performing live and, at times, it seemed like he didn’t know what to do with himself. Ross stood awkwardly in a wide stance as he tweaked the knobs on his Livid CNTRL:R while Reznor would wield his mic stand in full battle stance. While his stage presence clearly needs work, it’s his duel utilization of the CNTRL:R and a Native Instruments Maschine that is responsible for the vast majority of the electronica elements present in a 2018 NIN concert.

Reznor has outstanding chemistry with guitarist Robin Finck a NIN vet dating back to 1994, and where Ross fell short as a performer, the Cirque du Soleil alum wowed the crowd with an acrobatic stage presence that adds a lot of depth to the group’s bench.

Maybe it’s a bit cynical to call the stage production low key, but the rig on the 2013 Tension Tour was as pre-programmed as Daft Punk’s pyramid and walking away from that kind of visual format really seems to have invigorated Reznor with a flexibility that allows him to sound like The Cure at one moment and Aphex Twin the next. On tracks like “The Great Destroyer” and “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” the group’s various SynthSmiths stretched their legs out in ways that would be prohibited by a preprogrammed visual spectacle.

Nine Inch Nails has always been a high-octane act that guarantees a blitzkrieg assault on the senses and although the instrumental execution hadn’t suffered, the visual element of recent tours has undeniably distracted from the masterful musicianship of players like Ilan Rubin and Alessandro Cortini. By scaling down the shtick and taking his show into smaller and classier spaces, Reznor sent a message that his Boston audience heard loud and clear: music comes first.

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Setlist

Nine Inch Nails at Wang Theatre

  • The Fireman  
  • Branches/Bones
  • Mr. Self Destruct
  • Letting You
  • Piggy
  • This Isn't the Place
  • Burn
  • Help Me I Am in Hell
  • Happiness in Slavery
  • Eraser
  • Closer  
  • Copy of A
  • I'm Afraid of Americans  
  • The Good Soldier
  • Survivalism
  • The Hand That Feeds
  • Head Like a Hole
Encore
  • All the Love in the World
  • God Break Down the Door
  • Over and Out
  • Hurt

Setlist

Nine Inch Nails at Wang Theatre

  • Somewhat Damaged
  • The Day the World Went Away
  • Wish
  • Last
  • March of the Pigs
  • Less Than
  • The Perfect Drug
  • The Frail
  • The Wretched
  • The Lovers
  • The Beginning of the End
  • Shit Mirror
  • Ahead of Ourselves
  • Me, I'm Not
  • The Great Destroyer
  • Burning Bright (Field on Fire)
  • Gave Up
  • Head Like a Hole
Encore
  • Reptile
  • Even Deeper
  • Hurt

Tour Dates for
Nine Inch Nails

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