I can't imagine a more concrete example of the difference between currency and nostalgia than the double-bill of Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden currently rocking sheds across North America.
When it hit Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre recently, a girl in the row in front of me was wearing a Soundgarden Nine Inch Nails short from their previous joint tour which played the long-gone Molson Park in Barrie on August 6, 1994.
A few months earlier -- on March 8, 1994, to be exact -- both bands had released seminal alt-rock albums, Soundgarden's "Superunknown" and Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral," but the former subsequently hit the mainstream with more force thanks to "Black Hole Sun" which was a little more palatable than, say, "Closer" and its indelible "I wanna fuck you like an animal" refrain. Needless to say, Soundgarden headlined that tour.
Fast forward 20 years and Chris Cornell and company found themselves opening for Trent Reznor's crew, and it's no wonder why. Cornell may still boast one of the best set of pipes in rock history, but it felt like we were history.
There's nothing wrong with a 50-year-old getting the band back together, and it was great to hear grunge-era classics like "Jesus Christ Pose," "Rusty Cage" and "Fell on Black Days." The band enjoyed their performance, as did the crowd -- at least until they played a new song and everyone fled to the beer stands.
Nine Inch Nails, on the other hand, opened with "Copy of a" and played "Came Back Haunted" third, both from the 2013 album Hesitation Marks and both receiving almost as rapturous a reception as when Reznor later busted out 1989's "Head Like a Hole."
This show was maybe the 10th time I've seen Nine Inch Nails since the early 90s, though I missed their classic appearance at Lollapalooza 1991 as I was too young to drive to Seattle and the tour didn't start coming to Vancouver until the following year (which happened to feature Soundgarden and during which Chris Cornell crowd-surfed over 16-year-old me).
But while Lolla may have boosted NIN's profile, Reznor's debut album "Pretty Hate Machine" had already been out for two years and made a huge impact in the industrial and proto-goth scenes. Lolla benefitted as much from NIN as vice versa, if not more.
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By predating the alternative revolution that Lollapalooza ushered in, it allowed Nine Inch Nails to transcend it, too. Soundgarden, on the other hand, was deeply tied to the alt-tour, having played both 1992 and 1996 editions.
The band was also part of the Seattle grunge triumvirate, which became something of an albatross as they were neither as acclaimed as Nirvana nor as popular as Pearl Jam. While the former became immortalized in Kurt Cobain's death (with the torch carried by Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters) and the latter carved out their own self-sustaining ecosystem a la Phish, Soundgarden broke up in 1997 due to ye olde "creative differences."
During the next decade Cornell sang with Audioslave and released a much-mocked, Timbaland-produced electronic album "Scream" before the band reunited in 2010 to make some of that nostalgia cash. They did release the awful album "King Animal" in 2012 to justify the reunion, including the overly self-aware single "Been Away Too Long," but their return did nothing to return them to relevancy.
Nine Inch Nails, however, have never lost relevancy and never mined nostalgia, despite being a going concern for a full quarter-century. (Yes, there was an official hiatus from 2009 to 2012, during which Reznor puttered around with film scores, winning an Oscar and Grammy for his efforts.)
Unlike Soundgarden, NIN's post-90s output has not only not sullied their legacy, but has deeply enhanced it. 2005's "With Teeth," 2007's "Year Zero and last year's "Hesitation Marks" have all boasted songs that stand up alongside his best, meaning the live shows can run the length of the NIN's catalogue without stopping momentum. Even the so-called worst album, 1999's "The Fragile," has one of their greatest-ever tunes with "We're In This Together."
The new albums also demonstrate how far ahead of the times Trent's electronic rock was back in the 90s since it sounds as current now as it did then. It doesn't hurt, of course, that he can tweak the electronic building blocks during live shows to avoid sounding retro while the Johnny Cash-worthy songwriting conveys timelessness. (Needless to say, Trent closed with the epic crowd-singalong of "Hurt.")
Reznor is not the only 90s alt-rock refugee still thriving, of course, Radiohead are still around, though they've been coasting on cool cred since "Kid A," and Beck has some new mellow gold he's playing out, but only Nine Inch Nails (and, in a different way, Fiona Apple) is as vital now as then, and certainly more powerful live than most of the post-millennial indie bands that followed in alt-rock's wake.
Look, I love Nirvana as much as the next formerly flannel-clad thirtysomething, but greatness isn't just about the first few laps, it's about finishing the race and after 25 years running the track, Nine Inch Nails is so far in the lead that there is no other alternative.