Nine Inch Nails at The Woodlands, 8/16/14

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Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, The Dillinger Escape Plan Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion August 16, 2014

For the first time in literally six years, Trent Reznor took the stage in front of a Houston crowd Saturday night.

Hard to believe, but true: the last time Nine Inch Nails performed in Houston was August 16, 2008, on the first round of the "Lights in the Sky" tour. Houston didn't get a show on the NIN|JA tour, NIN didn't Wave Goodbye to Houston, we didn't get a How to Destroy Angels show and somehow last year we were passed over while San Antonio -- SAN ANTONIO -- got a show.

In the past six years, Nine Inch Nails has been a lot of things in a lot of different configurations, but right now they're a lean, amphitheater-rocking machine, stripped down to what's absolutely necessary musically and led by a guy who won a Golden Globe and an Oscar during his time not being NIN.

And maybe the wait was a good thing, because the band that took the stage Saturday night may be the most interesting version of the band yet.

The show started with Reznor walking out to a mostly empty stage with the house lights still on. This was really exciting, even if it doesn't sound like it when written out. It's not the first time he's done it, obviously -- this summer tour is basically a variation on last year's festival shows -- but it's so different than what we're conditioned to expect from a concert that it's hard not to feel a literal rush of excitement at being presented something so unexpected.

Part of it also has to deal with the mystique of Trent Reznor. Sure, he may be a chatty guy (offstage at least) now, but it's still weird to think that the dude who built a studio in the Sharon Tate house, gave the world Marilyn Manson and was generally an enigma is now just a relatively normal, albeit still fascinating dude. You wonder what the guy who used to smash all his equipment on the regular would think of the kilt-wearing, tambourine-shaking Trent of today.

NIN's current incarnation is down to four members, which means on quite a few songs the players had to switch instruments mid-song to make sure the parts that need to be played live get played. Trent doesn't want to play the piano in "March of the Pigs?" Don't worry about it, Ilan Rubin can leave his drum set, walking over to the keyboard, hit the notes, then return to the drums right back to that 7/8 time signature without missing a beat. It's a sight to see.

Still, nothing is lost by only having four guys onstage. "Reptile" still sounds like a crawling nightmare, "Hurt" still tugs at the heartstrings and "Head Like a Hole" still sounds massive. The only real odd moment was a surprise appearance of a drumless "The Day the World Went Away," the only track from The Fragile performed all evening. After so many songs with drums, drum tracks and synths, seeing a basically all-guitar lineup on stage was a bit weird.

There's something to admire about how this tour treads in the familiar while still messing with expectations. There are multiple songs with no live drumming, it's heavy on tracks from their most recent album, Hesitation Marks while barely acknowledging that Year Zero, The Fragile and Pretty Hate Machine exist. The one track from Year Zero that shows up, "The Great Destroyer," becomes a noise freakout after about a minute and a half. An awesome noise freakout, mind you, but not what one expects from a major amphitheater tour.

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But Trent Reznor can get away with this because he trusts his audience. He may not be the sullen rock god of the mid-'90s anymore, but he knows he has a dedicated core of loyal fans who will consume whatever he puts out and a whole bunch of people who will sit through anything if it means hearing that "fuck you like an animal" song.

And that's what's great about Nine Inch Nails today. It can be anything Trent Reznor wants it to be, depending on whatever the goal of the current tour is, because he knows that people know he puts his all in to a show. Sure he doesn't scream the way he used to, but that won't stop you from rocking out when those familiar blue and red lights he's used for roughly forever start flashing during "Gave Up." Reznor and his team know how to deliver a performance that's always worth showing up for.

Whatever Nine Inch Nails becomes next, just hope you don't have to wait six years to experience it yourself.

Personal Bias: If I were the type to make a show-review bucket list, said list would include Jimmy Eat World, Deftones, Tool, Fun Fun Fun Fest and Nine Inch Nails. So, there's that.

Things I Hope Nathan Talks About in His Soundgarden Review: All the weird Illuminati/triangle imagery; Kim Thayil's awesome Call of Cthulhu shirt; the laziest version of "Black Hole Sun" ever; the three (awesome) minutes of Kim Thayil's untitled noise project we got at the end of their set.

The Crowd: Fewer black shirts than you might guess; a healthy variety of fans young and old; far too many couples grinding on each other to songs that aren't particularly romantic or sexy.

Overheard In the Crowd: "I'm going to go sit on the pedophile!" said one concertgoer outside the venue, considering resting her feet by sitting on the statue of George P. Mitchell. Rude.

Random Notebook Dump: Preseason football means that all anyone wanted to talk about while waiting in line for the bathroom was the Texans score.


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