Nine Inch Nails
The main stage of Outside Lands is a blood-colored curtain of electronic screens, with the cropped, menacing head of one Trent Reznor lolling around on it. His words punch out of the speakers, and the crowd shouts them right back: "I wanna fuck you like an animal" -- there's nothing swallowed or subtle or shy about that line tonight -- "My whole existence is flawed."
But only to an extent. Because whatever you were expecting from Nine Inch Nails, Reznor's reformed industrial ambassadors prove stunningly, brutally unflawed for this hour and 25 minutes, coagulating their mechanical grind and molten guitars into some intoxicating ritual of spite and loathing that is far more animating and energizing than that description might sound. Its unrepentant negative vibes drive some of the crowd toward the less obviously distraught flavors of Phoenix across the park, but for those who stay -- including the parents in front of me (with two kids somewhere between 5 and 8, who thankfully seem to have no clue yet about what Mr. Reznor is so upset about) -- this is it right here, an absolutely gripping show of shadows and light panels and live instruments and Trent Reznor dressed like a tambourine space-jock and giving it all 110 percent. ("Let's fucking do this," he spits between songs.) The band boils the heft of rock and the buoyancy of electronic music together into a performance that is far more relevant than you (or, well, I) would expect in 2013. Showed up casually for who-knows-what, and left swearing I'll see Nine Inch Nails every time I have the chance.
The band delivers hits -- "Closer," of course, "Terrible Lie," "Head Like a Hole" -- and which are uniformly excellent. But the truly impressive thing here is how well everything fits together, even newer and lesser-known songs, and especially "Came Back Haunted," the first single off the upcoming album Hesitation Marks. The heavy-synth chorus of "Burn," off the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, hits 10 times harder than the recorded version. Trent goes back to 1992's Broken ("Wish" as an arena-sized anthem, thank you), which fits as well as the sound of Nine Inch Nails in 2005 ("Only," another highlight), and Trent's fury circa '89: see set-closer "Head Like a Hole" blowing out lungs and eardrums across the lawn, whipping thousands into a storm of righteous, elated anger. (Another moment in which we all shout words that look not so nice in print.)
But it is the encore that I'll remember forever. The opening lines of "Hurt" send a shock of cheers through the crowd. Trent starts the first verse. There are the usual festival mumbles, a huge crowd half-paying attention. And then, miraculously, the voices stop. Trent's is alone in the quiet. He senses this, and takes it down to a whisper. "Hurt" belongs to the world now, with its close association with Johnny Cash, and tonight it strikes a universal vein, accesses and examines that unfeigned, unrelenting struggle against one's own self that it embodied for Cash, and for Trent, and for all of us who find ourselves choked up by it now, as the fog spits little arrows of moisture in the dark near-silence. "You could have it all," Trent sings. "My empire of dirt." For a moment -- the most powerful moment of Outside Lands 2013 so far -- it felt like we did. Ian S. Port
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Did you know Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase holds his sticks in that dorky wrists-forward That Thing You Do way? Did you know that David Pajo -- of Slint, Tortoise, Papa M, and a dozen other bands that are cooler than you, and also Zwan -- is the touring second guitarist? You did? Well, that exhausts everything I have to say about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that is not about Karen O. She has this way of funneling all focus and applause directly to herself, which is obnoxious but understandable; one does not bop around in a pleathery lavender pantsuit fellating microphones and yowling like a kitten and a banshee making love in a rat trap if one has not agreed with one's bandmates how the attention is going to be divvied up. Whatever else you say about this band, never forget that they once made "Maps," arguably the loveliest ultimatum ever dressed up as a torch song. And which O introduced last night by screeching "everlasting love, motherfuckers, everlasting love!" So yeah. Daniel Levin Becker
Saturday afternoon there was this big deal all over a gopher. The little guy had decided to come out of his burrow in the hillside, and happened to pop up right next to a security guard, who, obviously, cordoned off the gopher hole with yellow halo of caution tape. On our third free press-tent beer of the afternoon, and with Jurassic 5 booming in the background, this was pretty exciting event to watch. The caution tape was a barrier that hopefully both the gopher and the public could respect. And every time someone came toward the cautious security guard would holler, "Careful, there's a GOPHER!" Anyway, I didn't even see him, but I kept thinking about him all afternoon. Ed, Dan, Chris, and Chris are Grizzly Bear, but also kind of gophers. They're such an unobtrusive presence in music; It's easy to forget that Shields came out less than a year ago. Covering territory from pretty much half of that album, it's still the older anthems like "Knife," "While You Wait For The Others," and "Two Weeks" that everyone really digs. Still, with no new songs on the setlist and a huge, drooling crowd, you can't help but wonder what's the band members' next move. Did they just pop up to look around? Will Butler
Bear with me on this one: As a blind guy, I don't see well beyond a couple feet ahead of me. Which is why, when I get in public for events where everyone is crammed together, I see certain behaviors that usually happen too far away for me to notice. On BART yesterday there was this girl scratching this guy's head as he slumped and kind of nodded off on the way to the festival. It was absent-minded and went on for a while, like it was therapeutic not only for him but for her, too. I thought "Aw, that's really loving" in a pretty hackneyed general sense, and "File under: cute things." But then, several hours later, as Phoenix was banging out the last pounding chorus of "Rome," I noticed a girl right in front of me doing the exact same head-scratchy thing to her own self.
So with that one piece of evidence I will make this bold claim: Phoenix, like much great pop music, lets people love themselves in a way they usually reserve for the most precious others. Even though the band has become a massive stadium act, with fog machines, light show, guitar changes and all, there is still so much warmth and likeability to those guys; Thomas Mars' ebullient, forever-young charm, Laurent Brancowitz's goofy cinched up guitar strut. Bookended by two versions of Bankrupt opener "Entertainment," the show flowed easily, with the band mashing up old and new songs alike into seamless suites -- the best being "If I Ever Feel Better" combined with "Funky Squaredance," two songs from the band's underrated debut United.
Often it's a disappointment when the main-event band doesn't get super chatty with the crowd, but Mars could be forgiven, because it was obvious that all Phoenix was there to do was make people dance. The screen behind them switched between abstract light patterns, a low red gradient (for "Love Like A Sunset"), and grey, nostalgic images of Versailles, where the band was founded nearly 15 years ago. It was cold, foggy, and windy by the time the show ended and everyone started to leave, but it felt like an arrival, and scratched an itch for music that no one but a bunch of goofy French guys could play. Will Butler