Reports of Trent Reznor's softness have been greatly exaggerated.
The godhead of industrial rock announced in 2009 that his Nine Inch Nails would no longer tour. He has since gotten married, fathered two sons, won an Oscar (for the soundtrack to "Social Network") and formed a new band with his wife. Then this fall, he released NIN's first album in five years, "Hesitation Marks," which is more anxious electronica than menacing industrial.
But the opening night of NIN's Tension 2013 Tour Saturday at Xcel Energy Center was an invigorating, if not necessarily satisfying mix of artful noise, bleak balladry, disco funk, cutting-edge lighting and middle-age angst. At 48, the intense but more centered Reznor doesn't put the same slit-your-wrists arrrghhhh into his performance like he did when he was in his 20s and 30s. In fact, he politely said "thank you" many times during the two-hour performance and apologized for some opening-night snafus. He did almost lose his patience when he had to ask four times to turn on the stage lights so he could introduce the band.
Some of the musicians — including bassist Pino Palladino, who has toured with the Who and John Mayer, and NIN's first-ever backup singers Lisa Fischer (the Rolling Stones) and Sharlotte Gibson (Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Avenged Sevenfold) — were making their stage debut with NIN. And Reznor himself was playing six songs from "Hesitation Marks" for the first time live; NIN had performed at several festivals in Europe and the United States this summer with a slightly different band.
The 24-song set could have benefited from more rehearsal (more technical than musical issues), better pacing and the inclusion of NIN's biggest hit, "Closer," which was typically the closing number this summer. But then the St. Paul show had a more organic feel than NIN's other Twin Cities performances in this century.
Hands clenched around the microphone, biceps bulging and sweat pouring down his face, Reznor came out roaring at the X. With the overhead light rigging hanging low to make it seem like the band was performing in a club with a 10-foot ceiling, NIN opened with the thrash and throb of "Copy of A" from the new album and the electro shock of "1,000,000" from 2008's "The Slip." Soon thereafter, the pulverizing "March of the Pigs" reminded the near-capacity crowd of 12,000 of NIN mid-90s heyday.
But momentum slowed with the new disco funk "All Time Low," which was the night's low point. Other new numbers — including "Came Back Haunted" with its David Bowie-like swagger and the moody ballad "While I'm Still Here" — had more impact live than on record. Ten tracks from "Hesitation Marks" were included, though Reznor never plugged the album.
To the delight of the crowd, the home stretch featured old favorites, including the electro-stomp "Wish," "Only" with its jittery rhythms, "The Hand That Feeds" with its bazooka-resounding brutality and the headbanging hit "Head Like a Hole." Then Reznor, who had stalked the stage with seething energy but none of the scary danger of old, went arty on "Even Deeper," allowing Fischer to unleash an otherworldly coo that built into a scream.
Always big on stage fog and strobe lights, NIN has long featured creative use of state-of-the-art lighting. At times Saturday, the band appeared to be performing amid various curtains of LED lights, onto which were projected intriguing patterns and color combinations.
The takeaway from Reznor's return to the stage is that he is no longer an on-the-edge mad man nor is he a midlife softy. Rather, like Bowie, he's a man of sound and vision who is in touch with his feelings and delivers an often mesmerizing, emotional musical collage complemented by masterly, innovative lights.