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