In 1995 you couldn't drive to Harris-Teeter without spotting an NIN sticker on the back glass of someone's car. Nearly two decades later that enthusiasm for `90s alternative rock extended to PNC Music Pavilion where Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden shared the bill Thursday.
Soundgarden looked back with the bulk of its material culled from 1991's "Badmotorfinger" and 1994's "Superunknown," which celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year with an elaborate reissue.
It felt a bit like Lollapalooza 1992 with Soundgarden taking the stage before night fall although its members all look a bit older and (aside from singer Chris Cornell) thicker these days. Following the openers "Searching with My Good Eye Closed" and "Spoonman," Cornell noted that this was the group's first time to Charlotte since reuniting. Soundgarden had been scheduled to play Carolina Rebellion in May 2013, but the show was rained out.
"It's good to see you, finally," he said.
It was good to see Soundgarden too. With some bands there’s a suspicion that the group is reuniting for the paycheck, but with Soundgarden there’s really no reason they shouldn't be a band. The audience is there - meeting "Gun's" stoner-y grooves and the familiar refrain of "Outshined" with raised fists and loud voices. At 50 Chris Cornell also didn't need backing tracks to aid him in reaching the high parts on "Black Hole Sun" or "Jesus Christ Pose."
"I know we are getting to
the South for two reasons," he said after "My Wave." "The crowds are better and the humidity (messes) with my hair and makes me look like a brunette Carrot Top."
The rest of the band was spot-on in their roles. Ben Shepherd was the least predictable kicking at an amp early on and sending his bass flying over the stack of amps at the end of the show. Guitarist Kim Thayil was a laid back and stoic presence representative of the less than flashy grunge era. He stood stage right giving the fretboard a workout during "Rusty Cage" but without posing, sticking out his tongue, or reveling in any sort of cheese.
He was last to leave the stage after stirring the feedback on his guitar with his back to the crowd following 1988's psych-metal closer "Beyond the Wheel." He simply popped the lid on his drink and raised the can to the crowd as the fuzz rang out.
Whereas Soundgarden looked back with few bells and whistles in its production, Nine Inch Nails balanced material from 2013's "Hesitation Marks" with older tracks while looking back in a different way - employing production that was innovative and old school.
Instead of relying on technology, which is so much a part of NIN's sound, Trent Reznor and company mixed a futuristic light show with actual moving set pieces controlled by the crew on stage - like an extremely high-tech stage play with shadowy figures wheeling screens in and out of view.
During the opening track "Copy of A" he and his band reflected shadows on white screens behind them that were eventually wheeled around the stage creating depth and a canvas for more lights and projections.
The members performed with only synthesizers and guitar for the first few songs before the screens parted and wild-maned drummer Ilan Rubin began pounding a large set that gave older material needed bite.
"Disappointed" (pictured above) provided the visual highlight of the show. During it six screens and a series of moving black and white rectangle projections created an awe-inducing 3D visual backdrop. It was by far the coolest point of the show.
Other unusual uses of crew members included one following Reznor closely while shining a yellow light straight into his face during "Piggy." Reznor's face was projected onto the screens during the opening of “Closer" as a roadie filmed him behind the screens on stage.
The momentum lulled a bit with NIN demonstrating its range from dramatic ballad ("Find My Way") to industrial DJ set ("The Great Destroyer") to the metallic "Eraser," but he group won the crowd’s attention back with "Wish" and "The Hand That Feeds."
Although "Head Like a Hole" lacked a bit of the punch of the original recording (the bass didn’t kick on the intro like you’d expect it to), the encore of "Hurt" was, as always, the show stopper. Reznor’s vocals, usually masked by a coat of distortion, rang out during the chorus aided by a crowd that for once didn’t overpower and by a sound engineer who obviously knows which faders to ride.
By closing the show with the ballad, Nine Inch Nails demonstrated its similarity to Soundgarden (other than being co-giants of an era). At its core, `90s rock is still (mostly) more about the music than the show.