Author Archives: carleolson

Hiromi’s “Alive”: Jazz for Progarchists!

The petite, dynamic, big-haired bundle of mesmerizing musical energy named Hiromi Uehara (official website) recently released her ninth solo album in eleven years. Titled “Alive” (Concord Music Group, 2014), it is arguably her most overtly jazz album. Yet it also contains plenty of fusion, rock, and, yes, prog influences, as have her previous releases, which are marked by an instantly recognizable combination of breathtaking technique, astounding precision and speed, complex time changes, and boundless, mind-boggling virtuosity. I’ve been following her career since her debut album, “Another Mind” (2003), and have been both amazed and enriched by her music.hiromi_alive

However, one of the criticisms leveled against Hiromi, by some inside and outside the jazz world, is that her prodigious technical abilities tend to overshadow—or even overwhelm—other qualities, including nuance, emotion, and interpretive insight and dialogue. I think there is some merit to those criticisms, but I take them with a grain of salt. Frankly, the Argument From Lack of Emotion is, at best, quite subjective. Some people simply don’t like, or cannot handle, a cascade of notes (and last time I looked, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson are both, rightly, hailed as jazz greats; and Hiromi loves Peterson’s music). Plus, I think many such critics miss the apparent fact that Hiromi, while clearly working within the broad realm of jazz, is also very much a prog-rocker in her heart of hearts—as well as a player of funk, soul, R&B, metal, electronica and, well, you get the idea. And all of us here at know how often prog rock is criticized for having an abundance of technique but a lack of emotion resonance, a criticism that almost alway tells me much more about the critic than it does the music.

Hiromi’s acknowledged influences include the obvious—Ahmad Jamal (a mentor, and a jazz giant), Chick Corea (they recorded a duet album), Bach and Franz Liszt (the classical influences are often front and center)—and the not so obvious, at least to many listeners: Dream Theater, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, and Robert Fripp. The short bio on site states, “Her style brings a wholly new approach to jazz fusion, as her prog influence is derived primarily from such artists as King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Frank Zappa rather than earlier jazz fusion artists. Her music is almost orchestral in scope, and each of the musicians she plays with has a virtuosic grasp of their instrument, allowing for each instrumentalist to have an approximately equal role in the direction of the music. Her music is more melodious than traditional jazz fusion but with an equally complex sense of rhythm. Time signature changes are not in short supply here.” It’s impossible for a prog rock lover to hear, say, “Return of the Kung-Fu Champion” (from her second album, “Brain”), and not hear a lot of prog influences in the mix:

Read the rest of this entry

Did Dave Grohl admit that Soundgarden was a far better band than Nirvana?

The former drummer of Nirvana (#3 on my personal list of Most Overrated Rock Bands of Alltime), recently spoke with Rolling Stone magazine about Soundgarden’s album, Superunknown, released twenty years ago. Superunknown, in my completely objective opinion (ha!), is the greatest album to come out of the Nineties grunge scene in Seattle. And, frankly, it sounds as if Grohl, now frontman for Foo Fighters—a group I far, far prefer to Nirvana—seems to agree:

Superunknown is, in my book, right up there with ’90s classics such as Radiohead’s OK Computer, Jeff Buckley’s Grace and U2’s Achtung Baby. I always found Nirvana to be rather boring, just as I found Pearl Jam to be rather boring and rather pretentious (I don’t usually care for bands who try to constantly make Big Statements); it doesn’t help that I cannot stand Eddie Vetter’s weird, warbling voice. But, hey, let’s focus on the good stuff. Soundgarden is coming out with various deluxe packages of the remastered Superunknown (my copy should arrive this week), and Chris Cornell—who was good friends with Buckley—spoke recently to about the album’s anniversary:

Cornell, I should remind readers, once said, “I was a nerdy shut-in who listened to prog-rock.” And while Soundgarden is constantly compared to Led Zeppelin, the group was more influenced by Black Sabbath, the Beatles (Cornell’s favorite group), Kraut rock, the Stooges, the Clash and other punk-ish groups.

Speaking of the hit song, “Black Hole Sun,” Grohl remarks, “It was so much more melodically sophisticated than anything any of the other bands in Seattle were doing. It was a big deal.” The same could be said for the entire album, which is, musically and lyrically, one of most eclectic and sophisticated hard rock albums ever produced. has a really good piece about the album that gives a track-by-track tour of the entire 70 minutes. Apparently the making of Superunknown pushed the limits of the technology involved:

Michael Beinhorn, who produced the album with the band at Seattle’s Bad Animals studio in the summer of 1993, told Billboard in 1994 of how he’d overload “tape to the point of distortion, using massive EQ, massive compression. We experimented with chains of four equalizers and four compressors in one signal chain, on one instrument. The end result is a record that is both incredibly dense and overwhelmingly present. There is a tangible sense of air being moved.”

Another interesting note, new to me: the final song, “Like Suicide,” was inspired by a dead bird. Death and mortality, of course, figure heavily in the album; there is a sense of apocalyptic foreboding that is equally chilling and compelling, in large part because the songs are so, well, singable (beware, however, trying to match Cornell’s high notes). My favorite track, “Limo Wreck,” features all sorts of weird tunings and time signatures at the service of a haunting, dirge-ish cut that swells in intensity as Cornell wails: “Under the shelf/The shelf of the sky/Two eyes, two suns/Too heavenly blinds/Swallowing rivers/Belongs to the sea/When the whole thing washes away/Don’t run to me.”

Once I’ve had a chance to listen to the remastered album, I’ll share some more thoughts.

How Mike Portnoy helped revive Bigelf

Over on the LAWeekly blog, Jason Roche writes of how the former Dream Theater drummer—currently in about fifty-eight bands or so—helped inspire Damon Fox to revive Bigelf and finish the recently released Into The Maelstrom:

Bonkers and Retro

The newest release from Bigelf

When Los Angeles prog-rock group Bigelf released their 2008 album Cheat The Gallows, momentum seemed to be on their side. After 15 years of slogging it out in the local scene, the group was gaining support slots on arena-rock tours thanks to their brand of catchy pop-rock melodies filtered through ’70s psychedelia.

The truth? “The band was coming apart,” says Bigelf leader Damon Fox, in conversation at the Canyon Country Store.

The band were dealing with financial difficulties and offstage tension. Fox’s marriage was coming apart, and longtime guitarist Ace Mark left the group in 2010 after the death of his father and birth of his child.

With all of these outside factors coalescing, Fox disbanded Bigelf.

“When you get real low, real dark, and the mojo fades away, you’re not feeling your purpose in life,” Fox says. “The Bigelf purpose went away. At that time, I wasn’t interested in what Bigelf had to offer and there was conflict inside the band.”

Elsewhere, drummer Mike Portnoy was simultaneously going through band friction, a very public departure from Long Island prog-rock greats Dream Theater. Portnoy and Fox had bonded when the more well-known group took Bigelf on the road with them, and stayed in touch during the rough times.

A phone call between the two helped Fox revive Bigelf for Into The Maelstrom  – the group’s newest album, which came out yesterday.

Read the entire piece on I’m not very familiar with Bigelf, but will be checking out the new album.

The beautiful, subtle flight of One Thousand Wings

Making my way through the November 2013 issue of Prog (#40) a couple of weeks ago—it takes a while for it to swim across the Pond and trudge through the heartlands to the West Coast—I came upon a short review of the album, “White Moth Black Butterfly” (WMBB henceforth), from the group One Thousand Wings. I noted that the group was headed by ex-Tesseract vocalist Dan Tompkins, whose talents I discovered last year (Tesseract’s 2012 EP, “Perspective”), and then read that the reviewer believed WMBB to be “an absolutely essential work” and, in sum: “Experimental, accessible and quite brilliant, this ranks high among this year’s progressive releases.”onethousandwings_wmbb

Having now listened to WMBB a dozen times, I’d say the reviewer, if anything, undersells the brilliance of Tompkins’ album. And it is, really, Tompkin’s album, as he wrote nearly all the material, played most of the instruments, sang most of the vocals, and co-produced/mixed/edited as well. The One Thousand Wings Band Camp site tags WMBB with descriptives including ambient, cinematic, electronic, and experimental, and they indicate that while the album is “prog,” it is not guitar-driven, features nothing that resembles a solo, and is not really “rock” in any obvious way. While we tend to avoid needless labels here on, I would suggest “ambient/folk electronica prog.” That aside, simply listen to the album on the Band Camp site.

Listening to WMBB, three other artists come to mind, the first two perhaps expected; the third likely not. Although Tompkins does not sound like Jeff Buckley, I would recommend to this album to Buckley fans, as Tompkins, first, has a tremendous and distinctive voice—clear, piercing, soothing, aching, lovely, strong, subtle, powerful—and, secondly, creates a distinct world, something Buckley did as well on “Grace” (one of my favorite albums, regardless of genre). I should note that the aforementioned  “Perspective” EP includes an impressive cover of Buckley’s “Dream Brother,” which can be viewed/heard on YouTube.

Secondly, there is a fleeting whisper of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in the mix, specifically, his 2006 solo album, “The Eraser”. That album was far more abrupt and percussive and obviously electronica-ish than WmBB, but there are echoes (even if only in my head). But while “The Eraser” has a more overtly bristling and edgy quality, WMBB is guarded, like a candle fighting against an inevitable night. If Yorke is angry and sometimes snarling, Hopkins is wounded and searching; many of the songs might simply be described as “laments”. Finally—and this is strange—I’m reminded of George Michael. Much of that is due to vocals on songs such as “Equinox”, where Hopkins sounds just like Michael—at least a younger version (not the “Symphonica” version, from what I’ve heard). Take it for what it is!

Instrumentally, WMBB is a beautiful mixture of electronica and acoustic, with deep swells, rich textures, and subtle touches and details, usually in the form of tasteful acoustic guitar or ringing piano. As for lyrics, which is something I’m always interested in, it’s hard to tell as many of them are hard to make out. But the song titles—”Ties of Grace”, “Midnight Rivers”, “Certainty”, “Omen”, “Faith”, Paradise”—suggest some heavy duty rumination, perhaps just as much metaphysical as relational. Again, highly recommended!

Listen to Gazpacho’s “Demon”, streaming…

on the site.

It states that it is available to UK readers only, but here I am, in Oregon, listening to it. It’s too early to make any judgments, but it is both distinctly Gazpacho and also a bit different. Very acoustic; lots of piano; some operatic female vocals; etc.


John Wetton: “It’s clearly elitist, this prog thing.”

The group Asia (website) has a new guitarist (20-something Sam Coulson) and a new album, “Gravitas,” which is due out on March 25th. The band talks about their new guitarist (their fifth? seventh? twelfth?) and the new album:

The more eye-brow-raising interview, however, appeared on the Huff-and-Puff Post earlier this week. A couple of interesting excerpts; first, from John Wetton about aging and songwriting:

Most of this band are in their sixties–we’ve got one exception who’s twenty-six, but most of us are getting to that respectable age now. We can’t come up with punk anthems, we never have done. What we do is we reflect the internal conflict that people get. Look at “The Heat Of The Moment.” It’s an apology. “Only Time Will Tell” is about a relationship falling apart because of infidelity. My complete change-around as far as lyric-writing came in 1971 when I had three records that I listened to all summer. One was Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the other one was What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and the last one was Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys. The one that hit me the hardest, really, was Blue by Joni Mitchell because she wrote every song in the first person. It’s all like she’s reading straight out from her journal. For me, who had been brought up on art rock where you’re observing other people from a distance, it catapulted me into the world of, “Why don’t you write it from your own experience? To this day, if I hear someone bleating on about fame, I want to hear about their fame, not someone else’s. If it’s coming from the horse’s mouth, great. If it’s coming from the horse’s ass it’s no good at all.

And this, about prog and classic rock:

MR: I also have to ask you, you said “classic rock,” but Asia also falls under the category of progressive rock, which I think allows you the freedom you talked about before to do anything you want with your music.

JW: Yes. We have a foot in three trenches, really. We’re classic, we’re prog, and we verge on pop at times. We certainly can have singles that will appeal to people outside the prog fraternity, which they probably don’t even like. It’s clearly elitist, this prog thing. The bands that we came from, certainly all of them were prog. They died in the war of prog. But Asia, when it came out, reached far beyond the prog circles. To this day our audience is so varied, we get real kids at concerts, we get people our age and everyone in between. It’s great, I love it. And we still have a fairly broad spectrum as far as gender. Usually, we don’t have a room full of beards and sweaters, it’s usually a good mix of women and men. Very, very healthy audience. It’s great.

Wetton also states, a bit later: “My favorite male artist of all time is Don Henley because it’s like he’s reading poetry that comes straight from himself and it’s so gorgeous.” Huh. I cannot say I saw that one coming. Not that there’s anything wrong with Henley’s music; I enjoy some of his solo stuff and a fair amount of the Eagles’ music as well. But not expected.

Here is the video for the album’s first single, “Valkyrie”. The positives: Wetton sounds great; his vocals are impressively strong and clear at the age of 64. The song itself is quite decent, with the distinctive Asia “sound”: soaring keyboards, big chorus, and lyrics tinged with semi-mythical elements. The negatives: the video is rather (very!) low budget, the song sounds quite a bit like most Asia songs of the past couple of decades, and young Coulson seems underused. What strikes me odd, as I’ve read about this new album, is that while the band members talk about Coulson bringing a harder, even more metal-ish, sound with him, it doesn’t show up in the first single or in the clips of the other eight tunes. And, of course, none of them really sound prog-gy at all. Come to think of it, when did Asia last really incorporate anything obviously proggy in its albums? The mid-1980s? I’m not sure, because I stopped listening for about 20 years or so, and have only regained interest in the past couple of years.

Personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for the first three Asia albums. In part, because of my age; I was in junior high school when the self-titled debut album appeared in 1982 (32 years ago this month), and in high school when Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985) came along. I thoroughly enjoyed all three albums, and they were in my regular rotation, along with Kansas, Queen, Styx, and some groups I’m too embarrassed to mention here. Through Asia, I learned about ELP, but I didn’t discover King Crimson until many years later, and when I did, I thought, “Wow, that was John Wetton?!” Part of me wonders if the mega-success of the first Asia album didn’t create some problems, creatively, for Wetton and Geoff Downes; it certainly led to lots of conflicts, break-ups, and such over the years. Whatever the case, I am curious about this new album, but I’m trying to have modest expectations. I am thankful, however, that the group didn’t do a cover of Henley’s “Boys of Summer”.

Forget the Grammys—it’s time for Carl the Snarl’s Music Awards

"Jazz 1954" by Maurice Esteve

“Jazz 1954″ by Maurice Esteve

As I write this, the Grammys are airing. And so I, like every lover of fantastic and worthy music, am doing the obvious: I’m not watching. I haven’t watched the Grammys in well over twenty years, which means I’ve not only saved 60 hours or so of precious time, I’ve probably saved a few television sets in the process. In short, I cannot stand the Grammys. To be clear, it’s not so much that the actual choices for nominees or even the winners are so misguided or puzzling—although how Kanye West has managed to win 21 Grammys is a bit perplexing—but the banal, narcissistic, and politically-correct posturing of The TV Spectacle Called “The Grammys” is simply too much. I cannot take it. And so I don’t.

(Astute readers will note that several of my selections were nominated for Grammys. Again, I don’t think the Grammy choices are necessarily poor, as they are actually often on the mark. But the television event itself is a travesty. Update: Yep, a complete travesty.)

Back in 2006, I wrote my first (and only) “Carl the Snarl Music Awards” as a response of sorts to the Grammys. “Most Top 40 pop/rock music,” I serenely opined at the time, “is heavily-produced, hyper-marketed aural trash … Which is why I offer you the “Carl the Snarl Music Awards,” a heavily biased, very subjective, but entirely correct collection of music deserving time on your CD player, iTunes, iPod, or whatever other musical device you employ.” So, in truth, I must thank the Grammy’s for saving my “Favorite Albums of 2013,” which I started compiling two months ago but have never finished—until now. If it weren’t for The Grammy’s, the following would have become a mythical and bedazzling sort of rumor, along the lines of Seal’s “Togetherland” album.

I’ve listed my twelve favorite albums of the past year, followed by a few other albums (36 of ‘em, actually, for a total of 48 favorites) that I think deserve some attention. “And…” [glancing blankly at the huge audience] “…the winners…” [grins slyly and a bit creepily] “…are….”: Read the rest of this entry

Kevin McCormick discusses “In Dulci Jubilo: Songs of Christmas for Guitar and Voice”


The following interview with guitarist and composer Kevin McCormick was originally posted on Catholic World Report last week, but I am posting here as Kevin is a fellow Progarchist, he is a fabulous musician, and his new album, with his daughter Rachel, is a gorgeous album of traditional and sacred Christmas music. Here goes!

Kevin McCormick ( is a classical guitarist, composer, and teacher based in Texas who has released several albums over the past twenty years. His new album, In Dulci Jubilo: Songs of Christmas for Guitar and Voice, featuring the vocals of his teenage daughter, Rachel, released today, on the Feast of St. Cecilia. It is a collection of fourteen songs for Advent and Christmas, including “In Dulci Jubilo”, “Ave Maria”, and “Panis Angelicus”. He recently responded to some questions I send to him about his new album.

CWR: For those who aren’t familiar with your work, what is your musical background: where did you study, what have you recorded, and what do you do as a full-time musician? What about your daughter, Rachel?

McCormick: My mother was a music teacher and choral director and so music was a large piece of the fabric of our family. My older brother played piano and my younger brother played drums. I’ve played guitar for nearly as far back as I can remember. I started when I was seven and studied privately for many years. And yes, I’m not ashamed to say we were a band. We spent most of our time writing our own music. By high school though we were playing cover tunes at clubs and other gigs and generally enjoying it all. I continued with a band at Notre Dame, but while there I also rediscovered classical guitar and classical music in general. During a year abroad in Rome I studied at a guitar conservatory with a student of Andres Segovia. I realized how much I loved the sound and repertoire of the instrument and so I pursued it on and off for the next decade.

A stint in Japan allowed more of the rock thing and club playing but also the study of Japanese music. Along the way I began to take composition more seriously. When my wife and I returned to the States I studied guitar and composition at Indiana University’s School of Music. Eventually we wound up in central Texas where I was trading time between writing serious post-rock song cycles, writing for my own ensemble in Austin (which once again included my brother on drums), and composing classically. The song cycles became my first two recordings [With The Coming of Evening and Squall]. In fact, they are part of a tryptic that awaits completion. Stylistically they spring from many styles including jazz, east asian, film music. I was heavily influenced by the work of Mark Hollis during that time with my own foundation as a classical player was woven in as well.

But you never know what God has in store. I ended up establishing a teaching studio in our small Texas town and playing classical gigs in the area. That lead to my three solo guitar recordings: Solo Guitar (an introduction to classical guitar), Americas (music of Latin America and some original compositions), and Songs of the Martin (collection of songs performed on a 1846 Martin Guitar). My daughter Rachel definitely inherited a love for music. She has been singing ever since she could make sound. She has cantored at church since she was ten and has sung in stage musicals at our local theater. She has sung with our church choir and her school choir for nearly ten years. She has done some private study, but really she just seems to have been blessed with the voice and the spirit for singing. Some of my fondest memories of her singing have nothing to do with a stage. She sings all the time.

CWR: Why did you decide to produce a Christmas album? What do you hope people will hear and experience when listening to the album?  Read the rest of this entry

Take an emotional, brilliant ride with Caligula’s Horse

I have, to the best of my knowledge, all of the less than two hours of music produced by the Australian group, Caligula’s Horse (website)—an hour and 44 minutes, to be exact, the sum total of their studio output so far. But whatever is lacking in quantity is more than made up for in outstanding quality. The group’s first, full-length album, Moments From Ephemeral City (2011), was attention-grabbing and quite memorable, featuring the virtuosity of guitarist (and band founder, producer, songwriter, etc.) Sam Vallen, and the powerful, soulful Jeff Buckley-ish vocals of Jim Grey, who apparently hails from the U.S. The two combine to create alternative prog that brilliantly marries technical prowess with emotional potency, compelling melodies, and lyrical mystery—always a winning combination in my book.

caligulashorse_ttttreWhile Moments was, again, exceptional—check out the song, “Alone in the World”, for example—the band’s new offering, The Tide, The Thief & River’s End, goes beyond exceptional. It is, as the reviewer at Murder the Dance rightly concludes, an “11/10″ album: “Caligula’s Horse’s sophomore record is an exhilarating listen; the band in its entirely channel the emotions of their instruments throughout, and the structural dynamics here are constructed intelligently. However, it’s Grey and Vallen that truly shine on ‘The Tide, the Thief and the River’s End’. Their collective arsenal alone is enough to earn the band a perfect score.” I cannot improve on what another reviewer, over on the site, says about TTTTRE:

I put it to you that it does indeed compete and then some with this album and is sure to make my top albums of 2013 with Steven Wilson’s ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)’, Tesseract’s ‘Altered State’, and Haken’s ‘The Mountain’. But to those who haven’t heard the band before, what can you expect to hear? Caligula’s Horse possess the juggernaut riffing of Periphery, the delicate emotional sensibility of Pain of Salvation, the perfectly tasteful and never over or understated rhythm section of Porcupine Tree, all cast to the harmonic ingenuity of Steely Dan. Some of you may be reading this and getting a little excited, it is exciting – it’s downright awesome and executed flawlessly by a cohort of young yet seasoned masters.

The album is a concept album, but is not obvious or direct lyrically; an apparent theme is the oppression of women by religions, yet specifics are difficult to apprehend. All the better, in my opinion, as I prefer ambiguous, expressionist lyrics when it comes to rock music in general. That said, there is undoubtedly a deep sense of tension, urgency, and conflict within the lyrics, intermixed at times with glimpses of hope and a deepening resolve, as evidenced in the final lines of the concluding song, “All Is Quiet By the Wall”:

Hand in hand with our own
This is our home. This is our home
Let our sign say: “Let them come and meet their end”
Now the world is quiet, this is where we make our stand

My favorite cut is probably the second song, “Water’s Edge,” which has a bit of everything:

The band’s site states that Caligula’s Horse are influenced by “such artists as Devin Townsend, Opeth, Steely Dan, Jeff Buckley, Frost, Muse, Karnivool, Meshuggah, Rage Against the Machine, Pain of Salvation, Steeleye Span, the Beatles, Foo Fighters, Frank Zappa, the Dear Hunter, Steve Vai, Fair to Midland, Tori Amos, Lunatic Soul, Katatonia, Tracey Chapman, A Perfect Circle and many others…” I’m familiar, to one degree or another, with all of those groups/artists, and I can hear bits of most of them in the music. (Beatles’ fans can check out Vallen and Grey performing “Across the Universe”.)

Certainly Opeth, Karnivool, Pain of Salvation, Dear Hunter, Katatonia, and A Perfect Circle are readily evident, and any fan of those artists should check out Caligula’s Horse. Vocally, Buckley’s ghost is right in the ear, as this acoustic version of  “Silence” (from Moments…) aptly demonstrates: “I want to be ignorant to the frailty of my life/Days are grains of sand in a disciple’s hand/Looking out my window/Through the grey and lifeless sky/I know what I am…”:

Highly recommended!

Review: Chris Cornell at The Shedd (Eugene, Oregon) on October 19, 2013:


No “Black Hole Sun”? No “Billie Jean”? No electric guitars or drums? No ten-minute versions of “Slaves and Bulldozers”?

No problem.

Chris Cornell, the once-again front man of Seattle’s legendary Soundgarden (see my review of King Animal) and one-time front man of super group Audioslave, walked onto the stage without any introduction at 9:00 pm promptly, setting off an eruption of applause and whistles from the sold-out crowd. The Shedd is an intimate (and somewhat cramped) venue that seats around 700 or so, and my wife and I had excellent seats: dead center, front of the balcony. The lanky Cornell is fit and relaxed; he acknowledged the crowd with a warm grin, placed the needle on the record player set up in front of seven guitars, and launched into “Scar On the Sky,” from his second solo album, Carry On (2007), which happens to be the first full Cornell album I ever heard.

Although Soundgarden achieved fame while I was in college, I didn’t pay attention to Cornell until years later, having mostly ignored the entire grunge movement during the 1990s, mostly because of a dislike for the music of Nirvana—a dislike I maintain to this day, without apology. Nirvana may have sold more albums, and Kurt Cobain may have attained a semi-mythical status because of his suicide at the age of 27, but Cornell, who is now nearly 50 years old, has earned respect the old-fashioned way: by staying alive, writing songs about suicide rather than committing suicide, producing a steady stream of good to great albums and songs, and by touring often in recent years in support of the same.

Some rock stars burst onto the scene as bright stars and then become fading, falling stars—or drug-addled recluses, muttering nut-cases, or sad shells of their former selves. But others, such as Cornell, start slowly, build steadily, hesitate for a while (oddly enough, I think of Sinatra going silent in his late 30s before embarking on his stunning albums for Capitol in the ’50s), and then find their footing at a decisive point in mid-career, and demonstrate that they are, in fact, real musicians and not just brands and products.

Cornell’s two-hour-plus long set this past Saturday was a case in point, for it highlighted both the legendary voice—which was in exceptional form—and the stellar and varied songwriting. The former is the immediate draw, for there is nothing quite like Cornell’s multi-octave, raw, amazingly textured voice, which can move from face-melting howl to falsetto sweetness to blurred darkness to startling, clear heights—often all in the course of a single song. But the acoustic show brought out facets of Cornell’s songs not always obvious in full studio dress: the unusual chords and progressions, the subtle shifts in tempo and tone, and the masterful balance of melody and rhythm. “Sunshower”, for example, is a ballad-like number that slowly builds and morphs into a series of gospel-ish chords full of longing and a sense of rhapsody.

Conversely, the rocker, “You Know My Name” (from the 007 film, “Casino Royale”) is one of Cornell’s most straight forward (and popular) tunes, albeit with some sly humor: “I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights/But you yourself are nothing so divine/Just next in line…” While he is not a finger-picking virtuoso, Cornell is a more than capable guitarist, energetically wringing out walls of sound at one moment and then playing delicate, swirling lines the next.

Between songs, Cornell’s banter was often quite funny and self-deprecating, as when he recalled that he had only played in Eugene once before, with Soundgarden in the late 1980s, “in somebody’s basement, with two people in the crowd: the guy who booked the show and the janitor. No one even bothered showing up just to get drunk!” He noted that his first solo acoustic show, so to speak, was a small event in Sweden while touring with Audioslave; although it was “nerve wracking,” it was also surprisingly enjoyable, like walking a tightrope without a net: “If you screw up, everyone knows!” While the younger Cornell sometimes seemed intent on playing rock god—and unleashing his aggressive, freakish wail on audiences—the middle-aged Cornell seems to truly enjoy digging into the songs and revealing their more subtle riches.

Crowd favorites included the beautiful “Seasons,” the Temple of the Dog classic, “Hunger Strike” (with opening act, Bhi Bhiman, performing the vocal part originally performed by a certain Eddie Vetter), and Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days,” which featured the full range of Cornell’s vocal powers.

Somewhat surprisingly, the huge hit, “Black Hole Sun” did not make the evening’s set list, despite plenty of screamed requests. Nor did Cornell’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” although he did joke of how one reviewer thought it was an “ill-advised” song to record. But it was a delight to hear under-appreciated gems such as “The Day I Tried to Live” (one of my favorite Soundgarden songs, from the classic album, Superunknown), the Audioslave tune, “Like a Stone”, and the piano-driven, gospel-ly “When I’m Down” (from Euphoria Morning, Cornell’s first solo album). An unusual twist came when Cornell played U2’s “One”—but using the lyrics from Metallica’s “One,” a mash-up that proved the value of combining musical talent and a wry sense of humor.

For an encore, Cornell played a new song, the blue-inflected “Misery Chain,” written for the upcoming film, “12 Years of Slavery,” and concluded the show with an extended version of “Blow Up the Outside World,” the dreamy-to-screamy, controversial hit from the 1996 Soundgarden album, Down On the Upside.

Here is video of Cornell singing “Fell On Black Days” at The Shedd:


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