Live Review: Soundgardenby Mitch Goldman
Mercer Arena, Seattle, WA 12/18/96
Soundgarden's fall tour certainly took its toll on singer Chris Cornell's voice…illness-related throat problems caused the cancellation of two Northeast shows and the postponement (by a week) of their two tour-closing hometown shows in the increasingly seedy, decrepit Mercer Arena. But close the tour they did, and this, the final show, found the Seattle hard-rock veterans in fine musical form, if in somewhat subdued visual mode.
I remember the days after the release of the band's seminal Badmotorfinger (1991) wherein Chris would body-surf to the tune of "Jesus Christ Pose", his long hair and outstretched arms turning the singer into some kind of grunge savior. Now, Cornell, like Metallica, has short hair, rarely does his Jesus Christ Pose, and in fact appears to be not much more mobile on stage than fairly static guitarist Kim Thayill. Cornell's lost none of the range and power in his magnificent voice, despite his recent illness, and Matt Cameron's drumming remains some of the best in modern rock, propelling Thayill's Black Sabbath-like guitar sludge and Ben Sheppard's bass; it's just that, like most of today's once-cutting edge bands, Soundgarden are now more like elder statesman of rock rather than dangerous alternatives.
And it's telling that the most compelling tunes in their Seattle show were the handful of Badmotorfinger tunes; the hypnotic "Searching with My Good Eye Closed"; the brilliant grunge anthem "Outshined"; the elusive melodies of "Rusty Cage"; the sludgy, audience-perplexing fifteen minute version of "Slaves and Bulldozers" that ended the set. Most of the rest of the show was made up of the songs that have turned Soundgarden into the Led Zeppelin of the '90's…the radio-saturated tunes from their 1994 breakthrough Superunknown. "Spoonman", "My Wave" "Fell on Black Days" and "Let Me Drown" are permanently ingrained in the consciousness of anyone who loves modern rock. And live, most of these songs rock, especially "My Wave"; but somehow their radio familiarity makes them that much less personal.
The new songs from the band's excellent Down on the Upside continue in the Superunknown tradition; dark emotions set to tight, melodic, borderline-mature hard rock. Most powerful perhaps was the Lennon-esque "Blow Up the Outside World"; preceded by a nihilistically violent film, this song found Cornell's voice transporting the melody above the bleakness built into the words. Dynamic and ultimately explosive, "Outside World", live, captures perfectly the current phase of a band transitioning from exciting, barrier-breaking youngsters to established, mainstream rockers.
I guess I miss the old days (from only five years ago!)…it's gratifying to see a great band settle into a still-productive middle age, but it's also a reminder of how fleeting are the moments of true musical excitement. It remains to be seen whether Soundgarden can transcend, rather than just lead, the mainstream they've created.
Copyright © 1997
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