As goodbyes go, Nine Inch Nails' farewell-to-touring concert on Thursday night at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles was an aural bear hug. Followed by a firm handshake, a high five and a rap on the cheek - the kind of prolonged, reluctant send-off you get from a man's man.
"This is it," frontman Trent Reznor told the packed house a half-hour into the performance. "I haven't had a chance to catch my breath and think about things ... I'm kinda sad. But I'm not gonna break down in tears just yet."
These were the tracks of his tears - 37 songs that spanned Reznor's two-decade career as sonic explorer and touchstone for the disenfranchised, played pristinely to an adoring, sing-along throng in a 2,200-capacity Art Deco theater. It was 3 hours 16 minutes to remember Nine Inch Nails by, at least until the inevitable DVD set of this "Wave Goodbye" tour is released.
Even playing their third Los Angeles show in five nights, Reznor and bandmates (Robin Finck on guitar, Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass, and wunderkind Ilan Rubin on drums) never let the show feel like ritual. Sweating through multiple T-shirts and attacking both his metallurgy and balladry with vigor, Reznor displayed no effects from the illness that forced the postponement of two shows last week. Then again, as several NIN devotees noted, if he survived Sunday's show at the steamy subterranean venue the Echoplex (on a night the paramedics were busy), Reznor was game for anything.
So was the crowd, which included balcony-dwellers such as skateboard king Tony Hawk, magician Penn Jillette, No Doubt's Tony Kanal, and porn star Ron Jeremy (who dismissed a cheer from the folks below with a wave and "Aw, shut the fuck up"). "Home" started the evening with a slow simmer, but by the time NIN had ripped through "Somewhat Damaged," "The Collector" and "Discipline," things were at a boil, and Reznor punctuated "March of the Pigs" by hurling a mic stand.
It was not the last piece of equipment to take a beating on this evening.
The assault of sound and light nearly flattened all but the hardiest headbangers by the time the quartet played "Head Down" and "Burn," so when pianist Mike Garson joined in just before the one-hour mark it felt like a halftime show. The slow-building "La Mer" was the perfect counterpoint to the earlier pyrotechnics and foreshadowed a three-song cameo by synth pioneer Gary Numan, who exited proclaiming, "This is the best band in the world."
The next six songs, which mixed new (last year's "1,000,000" and "Letting You") with old (1989's"Down In It"), made a convincing argument. After "Head Like a Hole," Reznor was joined for the first of three encores by producer Atticus Ross (whose brother, Leopold, plays guitar for Thursday's underwhelming opening band, Io Echo). The duo unleashed a dirty techno take on "Me, I'm Not." Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro then came aboard for "The Warning," "Piggy" and "Gave Up," finishing the latter with a short but sparkling solo.
Already Reznor had tossed guitars and toppled keyboards, but the real destruction came during the second encore, when the Dillinger Escape Plan added some speed to the metal. Bodies flew; a light stand toppled; drums were dismantled; Meldal-Johnsen had to duck to avoid the guitar wielded by a swirling Ben Weinman (Dillinger Escape Plan); and "Wish" ended with a body flying into the drum kit.
The stage was set for a poignant finish, and Nine Inch Nails did not disappoint. Reznor graciously thanked bandmates and crew, finishing with an aching rendition of "Hurt" and a solemn "In This Twilight." As the song receded, Reznor's bandmates, one by one, waved and left the stage, leaving the 44-year-old frontman at the keyboard under a single spotlight, singing "You know none of this is real / You will find a better place / in this twilight."
Oh, it felt real enough. Except for the goodbye part.
"March Of The Pigs"
"Something I Can Never Have"
"Just Like You Imagined" (featuring Mike Garson)
"La Mer" (featuring Mike Garson)
"Eraser" (featuring Mike Garson)
"The Becoming" (featuring Mike Garson)
"Down In The Park" (featuring Gary Numan)
"Metal" (featuring Gary Numan)
"I Die: You Die" (featuring Gary Numan)
"Down In It"
"The Hand That Feeds"
"Head Like A Hole"
"Me, I'm Not" (featuring Atticus Ross)
"The Warning" (featuring Atticus Ross and Dave Navarro)
"Piggy" (featuring Atticus Ross and Dave Navarro)
"Gave Up" (featuring Dave Navarro)
"Mr. Self Destruct" (featuring Greg Puciato and Ben Weinman)
"Wish" (featuring the Dillinger Escape Plan)
"Atmosphere" (Joy Division)
"Dead Souls" (Joy Division)
"The Good Soldier"
"The Day The World Went Away"
"In This Twilight"