At the end of the night, it was just a man and his guitar. And much like Picasso’s famed painting, seeing Chris Cornell alone on the Vic Theatre stage bathed in a wash of warm filtered spotlights was a beautiful sight; albeit much less mournful than the artwork hanging on the Art Institute walls just a few miles away. Rather, this performance, one of the dates on a national sold-out acoustic tour, was a regal celebration of the singer’s glossy career catalogue with a few marbles thrown in for good measure (most notably covers of John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd).
While many in the attendance could claim to be unilateral fans of Soundgarden or Audioslave or Temple of the Dog, on this night the front was united in its admiration solely of Cornell who, song after song, proved he still holds the court as one of rock music’s best singers in a sometimes sea of jesters. As tonight showed, years of practice have almost exclusively worked in his favor; an anomaly in the sour notes trumpeted by many frontmen who find themselves back on the bus for novelty tours. But let’s get one thing straight – Cornell’s show was no over-priced gift shop souvenir; it was a perfectly guided tour of the nuanced poetry of songwriting led by a cordial host who gripped the focus of his audience.
In a scene straight out of a Singles coffeehouse, Cornell braved the stage battling a cannon of fragrant incense and wearing a vintage ensemble of white T-shirt and cargo pants with his nostalgically coiffed shoulder-length hair looking very “Jesus Christ Pose”, apropos for the Good Friday holiday.
“This is the first time on the tour I’ve seen song requests,” he laughed, gazing at the poster board militia who had scribed their favorite tracks like temporary tattoos in notes that drifted off in a sea of screaming. Cornell pleased the crowd with performances they had expected: “Black Hole Sun”, “Fell on Black Days”, “Like a Stone”, “Say Hello 2 Heaven”, but he also surprised with a few abstracts that exposed deep inner dialogues. First there was “Ground Zero”, an ode to the world after 9/11 and then “When I’m Done”, which Cornell sang over an instrumental recording played on the turntable onstage. The latter was a moment of near sky-breaking gospel and further explored the intimacy of an artist not afraid to break away from the familiarity of a structured band.
Songs like “I Am the Highway” and “Burden in My Hands”, while masterful as Audioslave and Soundgarden recordings respectively, were even more poignant stripped away from the fire and fury of a quickly categorized grunge band. What was years ago a radio hit was tonight scientifically dissected for the beauty of its parts.
As conductor, Cornell made it known early on that this was personal. While reflecting on stories of Tom Morello and late roommate (and Temple of the Dog muse Andrew Wood), he came off the pages of the newsstand covers that dotted his past and made himself wholly accessible. Although it was never really clear what the rotary dial phone on the stage was for, perhaps it was symbolic of Cornell’s longing for communication. For this is the “Man of Golden Words” who declares, “Words and music are my only tools”, the man with his guitar who returned to the coffeehouse open mics of Seattle from whence he began. As Cornell would say, “You can’t change me.” Nor would we ever want to.