NIN/JA: Trent rocks, Perry (and summertime) rolls

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By Molly Freedenberg

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Trent and co. rock Shoreline with a pared-down, slightly steampunk light show.

It's been several days since the phenomenal Nine Inch Nails/Jane's Addiction (NINJA! How clever!) show at Shoreline, and I've been meditating on how to write about it. As I've scoured the interwebs in the days before and after the show, I've been struck by the conflicting reviews of this and previous shows. Well, actually, as far as I can tell, the reviews go like this: Nine Inch Nails should've headlined; or Jane's Addiction should've headlined; orthe whole show was perfect and frikkin' awesome. The first two come from reviewers; the last from every single one of my Facebook friends who saw the show, either in L.A. or Mountain View. As for me, I was impressed with Nine Inch Nails, but blown away by Jane's Addiction. My roommate, on the other hand, felt the exact opposite. I began to wonder, what makes all this difference? My conclusion? Context.

I first started listening to Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction during the delicate period between junior high and high school. I was in transition from A-student/perfectionist/goodie-two-shoes to angsty, cigarette-smoking school skipper, and still several years away from a (very helpful) prescription for anti-depressants. The bands appealed to me in different ways: Nine Inch Nails for its dark power, driving, almost danceable beats, and obvious pain; Jane's Addiction for its alternating melodic melancholy and ethereal whimsy. But both became musical totems of that time in my life - and both followed me through first love and heartbreak, first sex and first orgasm (which, of course, happened separately), losing my dad, leaving for college, more love, more heartbreak. When I entered an eating disorder hospital at age 22 (okay, so the anti-depressants didn't work that well), I sometimes sang lyrics from Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile in the shower. As I grew and changed, so did my relationship with NIN and JA, but both remained powerfully important parts of my personal soundtrack. Through the years, I've seen Nine Inch Nails perform several times: with my friend Kris during the Downward Spiral tour, when NIN opened for David Bowie; with a friend in Portland and then, the next night, with a recently ex-ed boyfriend, on The Fragile tour; with a soon-to-be ex at Coachella. As for Jane's Addiction, the closest I'd gotten to seeing them (having missed their Lollapalooza tour with Nine Inch Nails by about a year) was a short Porno for Pyros set at a radio station-sponsored multi-concert and a brief experience watching Perry Farrell as a DJ.

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And so. On Friday, I was comparing Nine Inch Nails to shows in the past - and my emotional state while there. I was only comparing Jane's Addiction to my fantasies and expectations. My roommate - who was so moved by Nine Inch Nails that she hopped on a bike the next day to buy their discography - had no expectations of NIN and high expectations of JA. Our conversation made me wish I knew the context of both the reviewers and friends who were assessing this show. Because it strikes me that these bands, both of whom found commercial success in the '90s, when many of the 30ish fans in the audience were in their early teens, inspire a lot of emotion and nostalgia in the people who've bought tickets to see them. For example, what was the perspective of the Rolling Stone reviewer" before he decided Nine Inch Nails was disappointing? Was he unbiased? Already loving Jane's more? Or an NIN-devotee who's expectations weren't met?

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In any case, it speaks well of the show that so many concert-goers were satisfied, and that critics were left to argue who's set was less great than who's (rather than having something substantial to complain about). And rightfully so. It was a satisfying show on many levels and, I hear, even more so for the lucky few who got to the ampitheater early enough to see openers Street Sweeper Social Club. (Arriving at 7:30 is too late to see the opener? Really, Shoreline? And while we're at it, what was up with security? We could bring factory-sealed water bottles, but door personnel removed the caps before we entered. Then before going to our seats, we had to pour the bottled water into plastic cups. What?!?) So here are my biased observations, in all their afore-mentioned context:

Nine Inch Nails

Overall: The set began with a song I didn't recognize - perhaps from one of the last two albums? - and so I was first struck by the stage set-up. My how far we've come from the days of multi-colored lights and macabre visuals. The set was full, but stark, absolutely packed with stacks of lights in shades of white -- and more hanging from the ceiling. (Apparently, the simpler set-up allowed for more setlist flexibility than previous designs.) My concert companion thought the choice was a perfect reflection of the man-meets-machine quality of the music, the lights representing the mechanical world, the sweating bandmates the human one, and the copious amounts of smoke billowing onto and off of the stage embodying the liminal space between the two. He'd never seen Nine Inch Nails live, so couldn't appreciate the contrast to those MTV-inspired shows of yore. But he was right: the toned down -- or at least, pared down -- set showed off the band and the music in a way I hadn't witnessed before. Instead of seeming like a multimedia experience with a DJ/singer (and oh yeah, the backing band too, I guess), this iteration of Nine Inch Nails live reminded me that NIN is, above all, a rock band. It was fascinating to watch Reznor sing and play, move from microphone to keyboard to sound board, sweating and grimacing and feeling every single lyric, whether he wrote it last year or last decade. (And really, how does he sing "Terrible Lie" with the same intensity now that he did in 1992?) It was clear, especially in contrast with Jane's Addiction later, that NIN's show was about the experience of making music more than it was the experience of putting on a show.

Other notes: Dude, the guitarist had a dreaded mullet. The drummer seemed young - and was fantastic. On that note, there was something weird about the sound - everything sounded a bit muddy except the drums, which were sharp and clear. The set-list was near perfect for a long-time fan: mostly older songs, but few of the obvious or radio choices. Highlights: "The Day the World Went Away," "Hurt," "Terrible Lie," "Head Like a Hole," and, surprisingly, "Perfect Drug" (which has grown on me). I was also struck by how orchestral and cinematic NIN's music is. I wonder if, now that Reznor plans to quit touring, he'll follow Danny Elfman's (of Oingo Boingo) path and write scores for films.

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Jane's Addiction

Overall: Everything NIN lacked in show-biz-ness, Jane's Addiction made up for in spandex-clad spades. From the first notes of "Three Days," it was clear this set would be about showmanship -- and I wouldn't want it any other way. The band, who've all aged better than certain reviews have suggested, performed in front of a huge, ornate backdrop with a swirling black pattern and a Ritual-de-lo-Habitual-esque icon of a woman peeking over the side. The stage was bathed in smoke and multi-colored lights, every bit as dense and multi-layered as the music itself. And the band...oh, the band.

First there's Perry Farrell, wearing a flowy blueish blouse, a black leather waist cincher, tight pants, a ruffled scarf, and brushed-back hair (a bit Newsom-esque, I thought). Perhaps I've been overseeing fashion interns for too long, but I wondered who designed and styled his strange, androgynous outfit. (Anyone know?) The 50-something (really?) singer pranced and danced about the stage with a remarkable amount of energy and remarkable lack of grace, all while jumping on and off of a small pedastal - like the box the elephants balance on at the circus - in front of the stage. His antics were strange and a bit disjointed, but not at all in conflict with the quirky, eclectic, fruity image I already have of Farrell. What threw me off, though, was his between-song banter: awkward, unnecessarily sexual, and forced, his interjections (e.g. "I can't wait to get my cock sucked!", he said, appropos of nothing) inspired my roommmate to remark, "You'd think after 25 years of performing, he'd have figured out how to say something articulate between songs." What's worse? He kept calling us "San Francisco." It was a nice gesture, and the things he claims to like about our city -- the freedom, the culture, the openness towards gender identity -- are things I like too. But there was something embarrassing about sitting in a music venue 30 minutes the city, knowing Farrell probably didn't realize that as much of the audience was probably from San Jose and the 'burbs as were from SF proper. Plus, he just couldn't let it go, even working "San Francisco" into the lyrics of one of his songs. As for his voice, he sounded exactly like he imagined I would - that is, like he does on CD - except that he seemed to have trouble hitting the high notes. Or, as my concert companion (a musician who studied music education) pointed out, he always went for a minor third (or a sharp nine?) when the band went for a major third. The songs didn't suffer for it, though, and I doubt most people noticed.

And then there's Douche - I mean Dave - Navarro. I never really thought of him before Jane's broke up. And then, once he became the attention-whore who married Carmen Electra on reality television, I both dislike him and also forgot his association to Jane's (and Red Hot Chili Peppers, who he played with for awhile). On stage, though, it all came back. Embracing none of his early '90s alternative-ness, he's still every bit the coiffed, oiled, make-up-wearing narcissist he was on television. It's a shame, because his guitar riffs and solos are still as good as they were on the original recordings. But every time his strangely expression-less face (Botox?) appeared on the Jumbo-tron, I had to turn my head. It got worse when he started working in the costume changes: shirt off, vest on (but unbuttoned), fedora donned. These changes seemed calculated rather than organic, as did his brief sojourn playing through the crowd. If the rest of the band didn't hate him in the '90s, I can see why they would now. And yet, that iconic music...

As for the other two...Eric Avery, the bassist who famously left the band so long ago, looked every bit like the guy who left the band - and would do it again. He didn't look unhappy, exactly, but rather unimpressed. Drummer Stephen Perkins, on the other hand, seemed absolutely delighted to be on stage - and on his colossal pedastal with an absurd number of drums and cymbals -- and in a very down-to-earth, accessible way. I mean, hell, he was wearing shorts.

Other notes: I'm not sure, but I think Farrell tripped and fell, at one point. Could it be age? Exhaustion? Or the champagne he kept swigging (or pretending to swig, it's hard to tell that too)? Also, either Farrell looks more Jewish as he gets older, or I wasn't aware he was a member of the tribe when I first started listening to JA. From certain angles, he also sometimes looks like Sean Penn. The band members rarely interacted with each other. When they did, it was generally embarrassing, as when Farrell referred to the early days of JA when they were so poor "Dave didn't have a shirt on his back," an obvious dig at the preening guitarist who'd just taken his shirt off for no apparent reason. Later, when Farrell was introducing his drummer, he exclaimed we should all see the size of Perkin's cock. The drummer stood up, good-naturedly, as to show us all, then sat down again - showing much more spontaneity and humor than Farrell himself. Highlights: "Pigs in Zen," "Mountain Song," "Been Caught Stealing," "Stop," "Summertime Rolls," a nice rendition of "Jane Says" with both guitarists seated and Perkins on steel drums, and the delightful surprise of "Thank You Boys."

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Who invited these guys? A crowd of Christians gathered across from Will Call, trying to discourage us from seeing the show. But their propaganda backfired...

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...because this sounds like just my kind of party.

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Reachin' out to fans for the last time? I hope not.

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Cutie pie drummer Ilan Rubin was barely a year old when Pretty Hate Machine was released.

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Robin Finck, formerly of Guns N' Roses, rocked the guitar better than his dread-locked mullet.

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