Last night I went to NIN's first Belfast performance as part of the Belsonic festival. The fact that it has taken 25 years for NIN to perform here despite their world wide acclaim tells you something about the Belfast music scene but that's a ramble for another post.
What it meant was that this gig was something a little bit special; this was a gig that people had waited for. That puts a lot of pressure on a bad to say nothing of the organisers and show producers. The crowds that gathered in Belfast's Custom House Square had expectations that were felt well beyond the apartment walled auditorium.
I love going to gigs. I love the waiting and the build up. Last night was no exception. Getting on the bus and eyeing up fellow passengers who looked like they might have the same destination. Walking from bus stop to venue and seeing that the prevailing direction of travel was with me, and that it had a certain look and image to it; it was thrilling, a rising swell of anticipation and excitement that this was something we were going to enjoy together.
Crowds make a gig, and this crowd was an indication of how good a night it was going to be. A band with a career stretching over 25 years draws a broad range of followers. People dressed in plain jeans and football shirts stood next to the more stereotypical NIN fan clad in black, with piercings and partially shaved heads. Parents who had fallen in love with Trent in the early 90's stood with their teenage kids with matching expressions of anticipation and excitement. Belfast was ready this.
Sadly, I have to admit that I missed the first support act, Little Matador; I knew that my stamina wasn't up to all three acts. I am told they were 'surprisingly good' and worth seeking out again. The second support act And So I Watch You From Afar (generally abbreviated to as ASIWYFA) I waited for with some trepidation. I must confess that I am guilty of judging books by their covers and bands by their names. ASIWYFA(who I still have to continually check the name of) had a name that reeked of pretentiousness and self indulgence. I imagined a dull and lifeless performance filled with overly technical and ill fitting guitar riffs whilst a vocalist moaned on in ironic chirpiness. How very wrong I was. How delightfully did I learn my lesson. ASIWYFA did indeed indulge in lengthy guitar riffs but they did so with such elegance and attention to detail that it became more than an instrumental puff piece and became a work of music. ASIWYFA dealt with my notions of terrible vocals by doing without them; they are first and foremost and instrumental band. On the few occasions they do use vocals they take the form of a repeating refrain to add another layer to the song. Wholly instrumental music does run the risk of becoming a soundtrack, something to hear rather than to listen too and there were moments when I felt like we were missing something or waiting for a punchline, but with their demonstration of musical knowledge and influence firmly rooted in prog rock and orchestral metal, I will be taking another listen.
And So I Watch You From Afar did an amicable job of warming up the crowd. There fans were definitely present and new converts like me enjoyed their powerful live entertainment. The crowd had grown denser and was buzzing waiting for the main act.
As a light shower of warm summer rain fell on us (in Belfast, I know I was surprised too) the crowd waited for NIN to come on stage. There was tension, but it was excited and jovial without a trace of the nervousness and negativity I have experienced elsewhere. Then, there he was, unassuming and alone on stage before a backdrop of white screens, Trent Reznor picked up a guitar and started to play. To say the crowd erupted in excitement would be an overstatement. Slowly as the crowd realised this wasn't a warm up guy, this wasn't a sound check, this is what we had been waiting for the mood subtly shifted from one of excited anticipation to rapt and joyous attention. Opening with and blossoming into Copy of A the stage lit up with bright white lights and the sound was crystal clear. The crowd responded appropriately and the set continued. The set list reads like a 'best of' compilation, Trent presumably fully aware of the crowd demographic at this noteworthy (for Northern Ireland) gig. March of the Pigs, Piggy and Closer predictably swept the crowd up into a euphoric pulse, singing along and moving to every beat. The high energy crowd pleasers were interspersed with calmer more melodic and experimental pieces including Find My Way and What if We Could. Even in these more tranquil moments, the crowd remained engaged, listening intently. The people on the balconies overlooking the stage leaned closer and stood still as the music reached up to them.
It ended on a high with The Hand that Feeds, Head Like a Hole and Hurt being played in quick succession; the crowd once more euphoric, moving and chanting along and realising that almost two hours had passed without us noticing.
It wasn't just that this had long been awaited or that the crowd were eager and ready that made this a wonderful show; Trent Reznor and NIN really did do one of the best live performances I have had the privilege of watching. They performed with the precision and production quality worthy of a studio album which meant that we could enjoy every single note, rhythm beat and vocal without compromise. Further more their skill and accuracy was paired with the passion ingenuity and creativity that makes live music so much more than an audio recording. I have been to passionate but poorly executed shows which left me buzzing and to technically sound shows with none of the passion or engagement that left me flat and wishing ii had stayed at home with the CD. This was a combination of the two; a performance that truly understood the music that they were making and delivered it to the crowed with all the emotion that was necessary to bring to life the notation and directions on a page.
This was a gig that was, without question, worth the money, wait, pain and long recovery I have to come.
Full set list is available here.