Live Review: Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie

by Mitch Goldman

Lakewood Ampitheatre, Atlanta GA 10/9/95

What may have seemed like an odd billing for a one-off, six-week US tour is perhaps the most inspired pairing of trans-generational rock artists you're likely to come across in post-punk America. David Bowie, musical chameleon, ground-breaker, trendsetter, foundation-builder for pre- and post-industrial music; and Trent Reznor, alienated teen America's heartthrob and keeper of the "industrial" music flame, hitting the road for an "alone and together" show that galvanizes (and alienates) two (or three) generations of fans, telescopes influences and the influenced in one lengthy set, and generally sets critics to head-scratching while the rest of us just ... enjoy. Bowie shows he's as hip as he wants to be, Trent shows he can focus on music and playing, and both artists show us all how close to each other they can and do move, both onstage and on record.

Nine Inch Nails fans were certainly surprised to hear that the more-popular Trent would take an "opening" slot on this tour; Trent's third release, The Downward Spiral, is one of the most popular and influential records to come out of the industrial/alternative movement. It's also a flat-out great record, in which Trent exorcises demons, confronts pain and anger, rocks out hard and introspects harder. "Hurt," the closing ballad, may be the most nakedly confessional song to ever hit the top 40 ... when Trent sings "you can have it all/my empire of dirt," every kid who's ever felt worthless knows there's someone in the spotlight who's felt, and still feels, their pain. Rock music can have no better catharsis.

After two full triumphant tours in the wake of Spiral, Trent certainly didn't need the exposure of opening for his one-time idol David Bowie, who's trilogy of records made in Berlin with Brian Eno enormously influenced the industrial/ambient movement of which Trent is the leading figure. But Bowie could use the exposure ... after abandoning his legacy of hits on the Sound and Vision tour in 1990, Bowie concentrated on his hard rock outfit Tin Machine. When little public interest surfaced, Bowie went back to solo work ... but his overly produced Black Tie White Noise album (1993) went nowhere fast, and his criminally underrated Buddha of Suburbia (also 93) wasn't even released in the states. So his well publicized new recording with Eno, his first work with the maestro since Lodger in 1979, garnered a lot of speculation about where Bowie was headed (or headed back to).

Predictably, the concept LP Outside has more than a little "modern" industrial sound to it, but Bowie's borrowing of recent influences is more like cashing in an old debt ... he started a lot of this generation's artists in this direction twenty years ago, so if he comes back to this music, well, he's entitled to it. And while the futuristic murder-mystery concept of Outside is gibberish to my brain, the 74-plus minutes of music is his most stunning since 1980's Scary Monsters ... from the industrial dance throb of "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" to the pulsating "We Prick You" to the traditioanl jazz stylings of "A Small Plot Of Land," Bowie, Eno, and company cover a lot of ground that always seems to lead back to Bowie. Some of this stuff sounds like other music you might have heard ... but all of it sounds like Bowie, and that's always been his charm. No matter what guise he wears, we always know that David lurks beneath, winking at us, saying "hey, you know it's me ... isn't this a cool disguise?" Yes, it is, David....

The NIN/Bowie show in Atlanta was identical in format and similar in material to the preceding shows on the tour ... Trent and band do about an hour, Bowie joins NIN for some Bowie and Trent tunes, then Bowie and his band turn in an hour and a half of Outside material mixed in with older, rearranged yet strikingly familiar "obscure" tunes that would make any Bowie freak spasm with delight. Trent's portion of the show focuses more on music than the first two legs of the Spiral tour have ... little or no equipment smashing, no fancy lights or stage props, just high-octane industrial thrash spanning all the NIN phases: from Pretty Hate Machine tunes (the opener "Terrible Lie," a positively beautiful "Sanctified") to the two best tunes from Broken ("Wish" and "Gave Up") to The Downward Spiral ("The Becoming," a spooky instrumental "Eraser"); even remixed versions of "Piggy" and "Closer" were played, to a jarring effect. When Trent leaves the stage at the end of "Eraser" and NIN segue into Bowie's "Subterraneans" (from the first of the Eno trilogy, Low), a hush falls over the crowd ... and Trent appears at the back of the stage, playing saxophone, while Bowie comes on and sings the lyrics to "Scary Monsters" over the ambient throb of "Subterraneans."

Thus begins the "together" portion of the set; Bowie, Trent, and combinations of NIN and Bowie's band (finally culminating in both bands, in their entirety, onstage) play both artists' material ... Trent's moving ballad "Hurt" is rendered as a duet, while his "Reptile" retains its original loathesomeness. Bowie's "Scary Monsters" sounds as fresh as when it was recorded (15 years ago!) and his new "Hallo Spaceboy" could fit in NIN's repetoire seamlessly. At the end of "Hurt," Trent and company leave the stage, and Bowie and his band begin their set in earnest.

And with minimal theatrics (some hanging mutilated mannequins, a wooden table and chair, some moving banners and lights) the Thin White Duke leads us into the heart of darkness so bewilderingly portrayed on Outside. The new tunes burn with intensity; Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrel is like a metal-tinged Adrian Belew, shredding melodically throughout without breaking a sweat; longtime Bowie sideman Carlos Alamar remains one of the funkiest rhythm guitarists in rock; and Mike Garson, jazz pianist extraordinaire, (who played with Bowie from the Ziggy years through Young Americans) is simply stunning. Some older tunes, like "Look Back in Anger" and "Breaking Glass" retain their original arrangements; others, like "Andy Warhol" and "The Man Who Sold the World" are rendered jarringly different, in stark, spooky tones. Bowie and his band give birth to stunning new material while breathing new, modern life into older tunes. Bowie draws a straight line from Hunky Dory to Outside, showing us how his body of work is all of a piece. Wisely, he's eschewed his "pop" hits from the '80s, but I have no doubt that if he wanted, he could render songs like "China Girl" in a new light, giving them the same stark quality he brings to even a pop number like "Under Pressure."

Nine Inch Nails and Bowie give us something fresh in this show ... a way to view two disparate artists as being cohesive within each other's framework. The aesthetics of both singers combine into a fresh new whole, showing the connections between metal, pop, dance, and industrial/ambient music in a way that's both thought provoking and entertaining. Whether Bowie has any real success with Outside, or further tours, is irrelevant; for one night, he and Trent meld three decades of music and culture into one seamless whole.


Nine Inch Nails (8:20-9:15):

Terrible Lie->
March of the Pigs->
The Becoming
Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)
Closer to God
Gave Up

Bowie/Nine Inch Nails (9:15-9:42):

Scary Monsters
Hallo Spaceboy

Bowie (9:42-10:55):

Look Back in Anger
I'm Deranged
The Heart's Filthy Lesson
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town
Andy Warhol
Breaking Glass
The Man Who Sold the World
We Prick You
Joe the Lion->
A Small Plot of Land->
Nite Flights
Under Pressure
Teenage Wildlife

Copyright 1996
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