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Soundgarden fans will never get back those dozen-plus years between the band’s in-its-prime breakup and reunion, but if this show is any indication, they have plenty to look forward to.
With Audioslave a distant memory (did it really even happen?), frontman Chris Cornell is firmly back in his native habitat, delivering his extended-range vocals over a bed of thick metal — “grunge” lump-in be damned — on a bare-bones stage. For the record, Soundgarden definitely is back. And this intimate show was tremendous.
“I don’t know how you got tickets to this,” Cornell told the tightly packed Fonda Theatre crowd early on. “I couldn’t get ’em.”
Those who did were rewarded with a 25-song, 2½-hour sonic barrage, which showcased the band’s two-week-old album King Animal — its first in 16 years — but had plenty of time for shout-along hits for the dilettante fans and deep cuts for the devoted. Amid the small-venue intimacy and sonic mayhem, the tight-as-ever band was in fine form all night, often grinning sarcastically at the concept of 4/4 time signatures. Blessed with an enviable vocal range, Cornell never shied away from any of the signature showy yells and highs in his oeuvre; in fact, he drilled them all night, though his voice sometimes was muscled out by the bottom-heavy Zeppelin-battles-Sabbath din.
The quartet opened with three songs from more than 20 years ago — “You guys remember those?” Cornell teased — and the lead single from its multiplatinum 1994 breakthrough disc. A heavy drum exit climaxed starter “Jesus Christ Pose” and fed into “Flower,” the first track on Soundgarden’s 1988 debut. The hefty-catchy “Outshined” drew one of the night’s biggest yell-alongs, and “Spoonman” followed with its staccato drumline, furious bass and meaningfully meandering guitar runs. It was 20 heavy minutes.
Later, a pair of songs from the group’s 1989 sophomore album Louder Than Love provided walloping highlights. “Ugly Truth” was a gut-thump of Cornell’s droning lows and wailing highs, punctuated by a high-intensity extended faux-coda followed by a reprise. The menacing lyrics of “Gun” were matched by its music, accelerating from a slithering, Vanilla Fudge-like crawl to ramming speed, then backing off — like a stifled adrenaline rush. The song remains among its most affecting, onstage or on record.
“Gun” also featured guitarist Kim Thayil’s first real metal lead of the night — something the show could have used more of, especially judging by the crowd response. He always was more secret weapon than showpiece in Soundgarden, and the many fans who flashed the devil horns throughout the show fed sloppily at the soloing trough when they got the chance.
But if anyone thought this was going to be a skipping trip down nostalgia lane, the rest of the show featured 10 of the new album’s 13 tracks, which ranged from pretty good to pretty great.
During the new “Worse Dreams,” the band snuck up on a crowd with an ethereal, dreamlike bridge that suddenly was shattered by a wild, plaintive Cornell scream. “Taree” fairly chugged along, until a single bass chord thumped the crowd like a defibrillator. A promising, snarling lead at the end of “Non-State Actor” was cut short by the song’s abrupt ending. The rollicking lead single “Been Away Too Long” — which not coincidentally followed a reverent reading of the band’s rock-radio smash “Fell on Black Days” — jumps off the radio, but Soundgarden played it like the concert cranker it likely was written to be.
As for the radio hits, the stuttering jam of “My Wave” was followed by crowd favorite “Burden in My Hand,” featuring Cornell’s sung-shouted opening. One song later, the band fired into the hard-rocking “Rusty Cage,” with the vocal deliberately lagging behind the guitar-fueled music. The crazy tempo change and ensuing riffage worked as well as ever.
For all the serious music, Cornell was affable when he spoke and led the crowd in “Happy Birthday” for drummer Matt Cameron, who has been playing with Pearl Jam since 1998 and would turn 50 a half-hour after the show ended.
After playing a handful of club dates this month, the band embarks on a monthlong North American tour in January, set to wrap with three shows at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre. With strong new music and a coalesced live show, Soundgarden not only remains in its prime but looks to be in it for the long haul. And that’s good.
Jesus Christ Pose
By Crooked Steps
Get on the Snake
Blow Up the Outside World
Fell on Black Days
Been Away Too Long
Burden in My Hand
A Thousand Days Before
Bones of Birds
Black Hole Sun
Slaves & Bulldozers
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