Last week's announcement that Nine Inch Nails would tape an episode of Austin City Limits surprised more than a few people.
While the show has been moving toward a more eclectic catalog in recent years, industrial and electronic sounds still aren't something one associates with the program. Give full credit to Terry Lickona and his whip-smart ACL team for taking a chance: the show was original, unexpected and extraordinarily loud.
In his first remarks from the stage, NIN singer (and mastermind) Trent Reznor
stated plainly: "We didn't want to make ACL
a Nine Inch Nails show. We wanted to be out of our element." As such, the band didn't bring much of their semi-truck arena production with them, but even what they did bring barely fit on the stage.
"We didn't want to make ACL a Nine Inch Nails show. We wanted to be out of our element," said Trent Reznor.
The intimate setting and one-off nature of ACL often leads artists to focus on a truncated, "best-of" version of their current tour. In Nine Inch Nails' case, though, Reznor chose to go the opposite route, jettisoning the hits from his set and replacing them with deep album cuts. Of the show's 18 songs, 10 came from this year's LP, Hesitation Marks, while four others came from 1999's often overlooked double album The Fragile.
The group's first two multiplatinum records merited only one song each: "Sanctified" and "Hurt." In their places, Reznor focused on groove-based songs and arrangements that pummeled the audience with the rhythm section. For a band that has existed since 1988, the slow build, danceable nature of the (admittedly dark) material felt in step with the times. In a era when dance music is everywhere, Reznor remains relevant yet still in his own unique space.
His eight-piece band featured NIN vets including Robin Finck and Alessandro Cortini, along with a welcome surprise — the vocal duo of Sharlotte Gibson and Lisa Fischer (recently featured in the acclaimed documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom). Their vocals added depth and texture that shone in a live setting, and both singers seemed to embrace the challenge of the unconventional backing assignment. The large band was exceptionally tight from its current round of touring, and while Reznor commented about nerves, it was hard to see any missteps — this is a group in synch with both its bandmates and its audience.
One of the intangibles that made the show special was the unfettered excitement of the audience. While ACL audiences are appreciative, they sometimes err on the side of politeness. Monday's show had a crowd absolutely crackling with energy —it was a loud, sweaty rock gig, though an admittedly classy one. The resulting hour of television should be a highlight of ACL Live's current season. Watch for it in spring 2014.