“This, is my good eye…”
So subtly began a concert that was fifteen years in the making. On stage had emerged a band whose legacy had been clad in cement, made solid by a career ended at the peak of performance. Six complete albums, three of them mainstream masterpieces, three of them raw works of unrefined grit. From the underground in Seattle to indisputable superstardom and a place in the pantheon as the voice of a generation, Soundgarden had thrilled fans for more than a decade. Then, not unlike Barry Sanders, The Sex Pistols and Sandy Koufax before them, walked away with something still on the table.
To the front of the stage walked Chris Cornell, whose voice still resonates with the echoed scream of the birth of the universe. Kim Thayil, a mud-covered, angry, hulking god of distortion. Ben Shepherd, the throaty rumble of a coming hurricane. And Matt Cameron, who played with the ferocity of ten thousand pulsating heartbeats.
Soundgarden took the stage by storm on this night, with such a combination of brute force and airy musicianship that it seemed at times as though the very earth would open up under the sonic assault and swallow the landscape.
This was a night of powerful remembrance. For on stage with Soundgarden was a fifth, spectral band member. For most of the crowd, the songs were accompanied by the memory of Soundgarden’s music through their impressionable music listening years. Smiles from treasured memories were plainly read on the crowd’s expressions. I myself was instantly taken back to those times when I come home from the fifth grade in 1993 and my brother and I would don headphones and listen to “Superunknown” on the tape deck in our father’s stereo. Now, here we both were, shoulder to shoulder, watching a band that we had waited to see for more than half a lifetime. This was my (fill in profanity of choice) formative adolescence, on stage.
However, there was more than simple nostalgia on display on this night. Also to be remembered was just how talented a band Soundgarden is. Tight from the first note, the musicians rumbled for more than two hours, still packed to the nines with desire, passion and an arsenal of powerful rhythm riffs. Soundgarden fans, as well as most music critics, have adroitly argued that Soundgarden was musically superior to all the other grunge bands, even if they shared popularity with Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, and trailed Nirvana.
It was a night to hear music as it was then; gripping and driven, with little fanfare or bravado. No guitar windmills, no showy set pieces, no ostentatious presentation and little wasted motion. Video screens flanking the stage showed in black and white, as though the show was a “Screaming Life” photo session.
New or old, whether it was the sneaky-sharp riff of “Hunted Down” or the incessant, measured pummeling of “4th of July,” the crowd was whipped into a fervor by each and every masterfully executed selection. Cornell brought his pipes to the show, easily ranging to the piercing shrieks of “Beyond the Wheel,” and the rhythm section parsed out doom in carefully portioned sections behind him. “Rusty Cage” was so compelling and dynamic that I could still hear it in my head two songs later. “Gun” was thundered out with bared teeth and zero refinement. Fan favorite “Jesus Christ Pose” featured some of Matt Cameron’s best work, accentuating each measure and riff with his (credit to the sound team) perfectly pitched kick drum. Crowd members who wanted to hear the early days were treated to “Hands All Over” and “Ugly Truth,” while those who came later got “Superunknown,” and “Searching with My Good Eye Closed.”
Of course, all the radio staples were present, played with equal surety and horsepower. “Black Hole Sun” and “Burden in My Hand” saw the crowd singing in full throat, while “The Day I Tried to Live” and “Blow Up the Outside World” blasted them out of their seats. “Spoonman” was whimsical but punchy, “My Wave” was an exercise in practiced precision, and the list goes on to include “Fell on Black Days.”
The show came to a finish with “Slaves and Bulldozers,” which was played so loudly and with such noisy ambition that by the end, Cornell couldn’t be heard beneath the hammering of Thayil, Shepherd and Cameron, which is a fine way to crank that track.
The only thing that couldn’t be determined from the show was whether this was a lion in winter raging to prove its dominance one last time, or a sleeping giant awakened to introduce itself anew…