Live: Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
Jane's Addiction sounded like classic rock that had lost its edge; Nine Inch Nails were as sharp and relevant as ever.
While tens of millions of television viewers watched Kris Allen and Adam Lambert battle for the title of American Idol on Wednesday night, a different kind of showdown was taking place at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, where Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction -- two veterans of the late-'80s/early-'90s alternative-rock boom -- played to a packed house nostalgic for an era when guyliner wasn't quite ready for prime time.
Both acts on the so-called NIN/JA 2009 tour won huge cheers from the audience Wednesday -- not surprising, given Jane's Addiction's Los Angeles home base and the fact that Nine Inch Nails maestro Trent Reznor has said that this will be the band's final run of shows for the foreseeable future.
As on "American Idol," though, only one had anything interesting to say, and it wasn't the group with the headlining slot.
Since returning to active duty with 2005's "With Teeth," Nine Inch Nails has been on a creative hot streak, issuing a string of excellent albums (including last year's "The Slip") full of razor-sharp electro-industrial riffs and Reznor's sly anti-authoritarian invective.
At Verizon Wireless, the band began its 80-minute set before nightfall -- less than ideal circumstances for its beyond-dark message and its smoke-and-strobes stage show. "God is dead and no one cares," Reznor screamed early on, the nearby Irvine Spectrum Center's enormous Ferris wheel clearly visible in the distance behind him.
Yet if the timing wasn't right, no one told Reznor and his three bandmates, who powered through recent material and NIN oldies alike with undimmed enthusiasm. The frontman apologized for "not playing any hits tonight," but that wasn't really the case: "March of the Pigs" and "Mr. Self Destruct" (well known tracks from 1994's "The Downward Spiral") sat alongside "Echoplex" and "The Hand That Feeds," fresher cuts familiar to even casual KROQ-FM (106.7) listeners.
For a closer, the group reached back to "Head Like a Hole," the 20-year-old single that made Reznor a modern-rock star.
Somewhat surprisingly, that song sounded nothing like a relic Wednesday. That's in part because its death-disco groove and line-in-the-sand lyric ("I'd rather die than give you control") still feel true to Nine Inch Nails' current incarnation.
An outspoken critic of everything from President Bush's religious leanings to Chris Cornell’s recent collaboration with the hip-hop producer Timbaland, Reznor hasn't allowed fame and fortune to dilute his free-flowing vitriol.
But "Head Like a Hole" also worked because Reznor knows that vitality is a function of focus. Not unlike Lambert on the "Idol" stage, he enforced a sonic specificity on the music that kept it from washing out into retro-rock vagueness.
Wonderfully costumed as a 19th-century New Orleans pimp, Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell might've shared Lambert's sense of sartorial inspiration Wednesday. (Typically shirtless by the end of the band's first song, guitarist Dave Navarro appeared inspired solely by himself.)
Only a handful of dates into this tour, though, these four alt-culture trailblazers embodied an artistic mode that was pure Kris Allen: jammy, putatively laid back rock wholly lacking in the danger and unpredictability of yore.
Never a band with much use for the merits of composition, Jane's wasn't helped by the comparison with NIN, which made songs like "Three Days" and "Summertime Rolls" sound aimless and woefully undercooked.
Long stretches of the group's 85-minute set seemed to consist entirely of intros, solos and vamps.
During its original run, Jane's reclaimed those hoary classic-rock devices in a way that felt new, even subversive; the band cultivated a potent gang-of-outsiders vibe that appealed to misfits unwilling to sacrifice their love of Led Zeppelin just because jocks dug "Stairway to Heaven" too.
In Irvine, those classic-rock devices simply came across like classic rock, minus the thrill of cutting-edge camaraderie. Farrell has spoken in interviews about the personality conflicts Jane's has encountered while working on new material, and Wednesday he and his bandmates appeared to deal with those issues by keeping interaction to an absolute minimum.
Encoring with two of its most well-known songs, "Stop!" and "Jane Says," the band finally mustered some of its old chemistry. But by then the transformation was complete: These one-time American idols had become another group of idle Americans.
Photo: Jane's Addiction performs in Irvine. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times