Saturday in Asheville was much warmer than Friday, which was good not only because it meant that festgoers didn’t have to bundle up every time they moved between venues, but also because Saturday was much higher in energy. Leading up to Nine Inch Nails’ highly anticipated headline performance were an electronic music pioneer, an orchestral interpretation of a prominent modern electronic artist, a Johnny Jewel project, a post-rock titan, and one of indie rock’s most consistently confusing and rewarding groups playing their most conventional show yet. Combined with an increased attendance from festival goers who didn’t have work, it was an evening to leave the jacket draped over the theater seat. (Or in the case of quite a few attendees, a day spent waiting in line outside the venue to secure a good spot for Nine Inch Nails.)
Zola Jesus and JG Thirlwell – 7:45
Zola Jesus and JG Thirwell’s Versions is an interesting tangent in the former’s career. Too often, artists will revisit their catalog acoustically only to find stale versions of great songs that their PR representative can sell as “raw”, but Versions doesn’t fall into that rut. Not only is it far from being “raw”, it’s ornate and often just as, if not more, compelling as Zola’s electronic work. Both Zola and Thirlwell have training in classical music (Zola is a trained vocalist, Thirlwell has been composing since the turn of the century), so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Zola’s music is a natural fit for the string quartet format. Zola hasn’t altered her dramatic stage presence for this tour, so when she wasn’t emphatically expressing the dark themes of “Fall Back” and “Hikikomori”, she was moving around the stage, shifting in and out of light in sequence with her songs. Saturday was the final show of the Versions tour, but once Zola has a more extensive catalog, it wouldn’t be a poor decision to make a sequel to Versions. (Which is more than most rappers can say.)
Gary Numan – 8:15
If Trent Reznor was influenced by Gary Numan’s early work, then Gary Numan’s latter-day work is clearly influenced by Trent Reznor’s early work. He flails, swings his mic stand, and even dresses somewhat like Self Destruct-era Reznor. That’s not a bad thing at all though. Numan’s latest (great) album, Splinter, clicks and whirrs with the same tension-driven electronics and guitars that Reznor has so often turned to, and Numan’s has five-piece adapted appropriately by attacking his songs with a vicious, up-to-11 approach in Numan’s last decade. In an interview held earlier that day, Numan had noted that he was uninterested in simply going through the motions of his old songs, and mostly Splinter setlist and heavily revamped versions of “Cars” and “Metal” affirmed that. Numan might be 55 – a thought that, in the same interview, he noted once scared him – but his show presented a man with the drive of a much younger, revitalized artist.
Chromatics – 9:30
Chromatics, as well as Johnny Jewel’s other projects, have a clear cinematic feel to their music, but in a live setting, their club presence is far more prominent. Bathed in mood lighting, the band’s neon comedowns were more Moroder than Morricone, wide in scope but still focused in on their Italo-disco roots. Even the songs that aren’t as dancefloor friendly – “Kill For Love”, “Back From The Grave” – had a bounce to them, no doubt propelled by drummer Nat Walker and Jewel’s rhythmic sensibilities. Conversely, singer/guitarist/keyboardists Ruth Radelet and Adam Miller played more supporting roles than typical lead positions, often staying towards the back of the stage. This economic stage setup made the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium feel less like an ornate theatre and more like the noirish clubs the band’s songs take place in, which explains why the band were the first Saturday act to pack out their venue. For a band that doesn’t tour extensively, Chromatics were sharper and more (cooly) engaging than most of the day’s acts, and if Johnny Jewel could be coaxed out of the studio for a solid two months, they could be just as formidable as a live act as they are studio wizards.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – 10:00
Theoretically, festivals are a prime environment for a band to introduce themselves to new fans. Most festival goers have their must-see acts circled on their schedule, but use the time in between to check out something new, and most typically have a pretty open-minded approach. That being said, it’s probably a safe bet that Godspeed You! Black Emperor did not convert too many fans in the ExploreAsheville.com Arena on Saturday night – which is probably what they wanted. But even if a set of droning, 20-minute post rock songs wasn’t the most approachable thing at the festival that day, it was one of the most compelling. Godspeed’s reputation of completely not giving a shit rightfully precedes them, so they were completely indifferent to the masses of people moving in and out of the arena, leaving them to focus on droning on in a dimly lit, claustrophobic space. Perhaps unintentionally, the band was one of the few artists who were amplified by the arena’s cavernous sound, turning their typically unnerving buzz into something even more discomfortingly powerful. Godspeed’s set was combatively challenging, and even for the uninitiated, a quite memorable hour to say the least. (Side note: For bands who want concertgoers to put down their cameras during the set, Godspeed have figured out the best way to enforce it – forgo asking nicely, just don’t light your stage.)
Animal Collective – 11:30
AnCo’s reputation as a live act grew primarily out of its challenging nature. Their sets often eschewed the material from whatever album they were ostensibly touring behind, favoring then-unreleased material over anything recognizable. Case in point: their post-Merriwether Post Pavilion set at Coachella 2011 had seven songs from Centipede Hz, an album that wouldn’t emerge for another 15 or so months, and one from 2010’s critical champion Merriwether. In that sense, it was a little jarring to see Animal Collective play it relatively conventional. With the core lineup back onstage, the sets on this tour have been the most predictable of any AnCo jaunt to date, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It provides the band a framework to utilize their fantastically strange staging and, to a degree, celebrate their success. Conversely, the band are still dead-set on playing most of Centipede Hz, rather than anything from Sung Tongs, Strawberry Jam, or more than a few tracks off of Merriwether, so they’re splitting the difference on the spectrum of conventional/challenging. Although this might be to dismay of longtime fans, without the challenge of new material, they’re the most crowd pleasing they’ve ever been, and after a day of (mostly) challenging and serious acts, it felt like a joyous reprieve to see the Baltimore quartet play a (relatively) loose, vibe-heavy set.
Nine Inch Nails – 12:00
Barring an unexpected swell of Pretty Lights fans on Sunday, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Nine Inch Nails’ presence dominated the weekend. Trent Reznor is one of the most influential electronic musicians of the last two decades, and as a live act, Nine Inch Nails (along with Radiohead) is the standard bearer for innovative large-scale shows. NIN shirts handily outnumbered festival goers decked out in rave gear on Saturday, and at midnight, anyone who hadn’t seen Reznor and co. live figured out why: Nine Inch Nails are inarguably one of the best live acts on the road in 2013. They’re touring behind a great album, have a dynamic and powerful lighting rig that puts even the most extragant DJ’s setup to shame, and they’re led by Trent Reznor, a frontman who hasn’t lost a bit of fury in his time away.
Some fans expressed dismay when Reznor (a vocal critic of major labels) signed to Columbia earlier this year, but if the 2013 setup was funded by Reznor’s major label budget, then it was a wise move indeed. The festival 2013 lineup – guitarist/keyboardists Robin Finck and Josh Eustis, drummer Ilan Rubin, keyboardist Alessandro Cortini – is now augmented with two backing vocalists and bassist Pino Palladino. The latter is an especially odd choice (Palladino’s former highest profile gigs? The Who and John Mayer Trio), but as a part of the live lineup, his presence is revelatory. Aside from being a highly skilled bassist, he forms a dedicated rhythm section with Rubin, something NIN has never truly sported. As a result, Finck and Eustis are freed up to explode onstage, following Reznor’s aggressive lead and injecting the more set’s more vicious songs – “Wish”, “Burn”, “The Hand That Feeds” – with more muscle than they’ve ever had. The setlist was equally tailored to both the throng of hardcore fans in the pit and the casual ones in the balcony. For every rarity like “Even Deeper” or “The Big Come Down”, there were plenty of hits and new songs, each outfitted with a blinding visual display. By the time the band closed with “Hurt”, the venue was just as full as it was when the show began, undoubtedly packed with new converts alongside the longtime NIN faithful. Even without their full lighting rig (venue limitations couldn’t fit the whole show inside) Saturday’s Tension 2013 show was a thrilling display from an artist who – in retrospect – made the right decision to go away to recharge for a few years. This is purely speculation, but despite being in fantastic form, Reznor is 48 and has two small children, so he may not be on the road much longer. If this is the last hurrah for NIN as an arena and festival-conquering band, he’s going out with a seizure-inducing, floodlit bang. If he does return, it’s going to take a lot to top Tension 2013, but if anyone can create yet another boundary-pushing arena show, it’s Reznor.