Bootleg recording [1-5, 7-8] /official release compilation [6, 9]
Concert date October 21/22, 2006
36 min, 16 sec
The Bridge School Benefit performance remains unique in Trent Reznor’s professional career. Billed as a solo performance, Reznor brought with him his voice, a piano, a set of shakers, and a string quartet that provided additional color to his music. Nothing about this was a Nine Inch Nails performance; Reznor stripped out all of the additional instrumentation from the songs that made up the setlist, and then, with the assistance of string quartet leader Martin St. Pierre, rebuilt many of the songs around the strings he now had. The result is an absolutely gorgeous set of songs that hold their original meaning, but are given extra emotion (and, in some cases, extra ominousness) through the use of a violin, two cellos, and an upright bass.
The Bridge School Benefit concert, held every October, was started by Neil Young in 1986 as a benefit concert for the Bridge School, an institution that caters to students with severe physical or social/communicative impairments. Young has performed at every concert, and each lineup has always been filled with performers of legendary stature, due to Young’s own stature in the music industry. A tradition of the concert is for performers to play acoustic renditions of their songs; the extent and effort put into this varies from performer to performer. Some simply unplug their guitars and basses; others put huge efforts into re-interpreting their catalogue for the setting.
Several of the tracks consist entirely of string instrumentation. “The Frail,” “Adrift and At Peace,” and “Right Where It Belongs” have their melodies recreated entirely by string, with Reznor only providing vocals to “Right Where It Belongs” alongside quiet piano plinkings. The rest of the tracks mix piano melodies with string addendums, or with the strings performing other distinctive lines of a song. “Something I Can Never Have,” for instance, has Reznor performing the song’s two-note piano line, while the string quartet adds original lines in addition to some of the original song’s distinct machinery-based instrumentation.
Interestingly, “La Mer” is shortened, featuring only the song’s intro in an abbreviated form, before transitioning to “Adrift and At Peace,” which features mostly original instrumentation that loosely follows the original song’s melody. “Piggy”’s distinctive tambourine is emulated with small hand-shakers used by Reznor, over quiet strings while he sings. “Hurt” uses the strings for additional color while Reznor mostly plays a straight piano rendition of the track.
The performance features Reznor at a point in his career where he was still on the rise from the lows of the Fragility tours, but his voice is strong and emotive, with a wide range of volume to match the venue’s unusual nature. He stays quiet for most of the performance, instead choosing to let the music stand on its own, only breaking this to introduce the quartet towards the end of the show. Like every Bridge School Benefit, Reznor played on both days of the benefit; the setlist was the same for both nights.
This album is not an official release; very few Bridge School concerts have ever been released in full, in favor of putting together compilations, pulling select tracks from a given show’s setlist. Two tracks from Reznor’s set – “The Fragile” and “Hurt” – were released on Bridge School Benefit’s fourth compilation. The other tracks are sourced from a bootleg recording – I don’t remember which night it is sourced from.
This concert became a huge talking point for the Nine Inch Nails fanbase following its occurrence, and there has been frequent talk of and requests for Reznor to do some sort of tour that follows the same instrumentation and format as the Bridge School Benefit. Reznor himself has floated the idea in numerous interviews; however, as of 2014, this plan has yet to come to fruition, and it is likely that Reznor will continue to not do it until he is much older, when the rock band format of Nine Inch Nails, perhaps, no longer makes sense for him.
Until then, we have this fantastic piece of Nine Inch Nails history to listen to on repeat. Here’s hoping for more.