A funny thing happened at the Nine Inch Nails show Wednesday night.
Toward the end of his encore-free, 90-minute set, Trent Reznor -- the only official member of NIN -- played "Hurt," the devastating ballad that received renewed attention when Johnny Cash covered it in 2002, a single that would become Cash's last before his death. Reznor brought all the withering anguish of the song's history and lyrics ("Everyone I know goes away in the end") to the dark MCI Center stage, accompanying himself alone on a keyboard with an eerie spotlight casting him in shadow.
And as Reznor sang, this request rang out from the stillness of the audience: "Take your shirt off!"
You couldn't blame the woman. The formerly slight, pasty, scary black-haired boy -- who, you'd imagine, was never one to inspire calls to strip -- is currently sporting an intense Henry Rollins look, with a crew cut, bulging arm muscles and skin that looks as if the erstwhile goth now occasionally emerges from the basement.
But as Rollins has shown, just because a guy looks like a Marine doesn't mean he's all fly-right conformity and family values. Even though Nine Inch Nails' latest release, "With Teeth," is the first album the 40-year-old Reznor recorded since getting sober -- as well as his first studio LP in six years -- the new tracks he played Wednesday proved that the artist who brought industrial music into the mainstream has lost none of his soul-baring rage.
Theatricality and thrashing abandon dominated the show. With the stage surrounded by a sheer white curtain and smoke creeping out, Reznor and his four-piece backing band (including drummer Alex Carapetis, replacing the ailing Jerome Dillon) kicked off the set with the short instrumental "Pinion" and "Love Is Not Enough." Only sporadic lights flashed proof that the band was even onstage.
The curtain eventually came up, but for the most part, the blackness stayed, sometimes cut through with blood-red or blinding white lights. Reznor, in fine, angst-ridden voice, ripped through favorites such as "Closer," "Terrible Lie" and "The Wretched" in between the new stuff, often throwing the mike stand into Carapetis's drum set (which, between Reznor and the crash-happy, guitar-flailing Aaron North, got its fair share of abuse),
The band's wall of furious sound rarely lapsed, though an initially cool gimmick turned into a momentum-killer: Mid-set, the white curtain came down again, now acting as a screen to show random images from cells (which first looked like maggots), the president (big boos there) and little furry animals (though with their skeletons and digestive systems visible). "Eraser" and the new "Right Where It Belongs" and "Beside You in Time" were performed during this interlude, and "Beside You's" line of going "on and on and on" now seeming a party-killing threat. Reznor recovered, however, building the energy back up until raucous set-closers "The Hand That Feeds" and "Head Like a Hole."
Openers Queens of the Stone Age warmed up the crowd with their similarly hard-edged rock. Josh Homme & Co. spent an hour performing hits from the older "No One Knows" to the new "Little Sister." Contrary to their driving, guitar-heavy sound, the band members were pretty reserved, with little movement and even less banter.