Like a well-oiled bulldozer, the Godhead of rock known as Soundgarden plowed through a snow and freezing-rain drenched Detroit Sunday night. Leading up to the show in the Motor City’s opulent Fillmore Theatre, I was more than a little apprehensive. Though I had never seen the band before, it being a decade a half since their breakup, I was familiar with others’ first-hand accounts that the success of a Soundgarden show largely rests on frontman Chris Cornell’s shoulders. When he is off, the performance as a whole is a calamity; when he’s on, they are one of the greatest live bands one can witness. A dicey prospect, to be sure.
To say Cornell was on doesn’t suffice. From the quartet’s opening song, “Spoonman”, onward, the man’s voice didn’t falter one bit, washing away my winces with the assurance that the night was going to rawk, hard. Every high note was hit with gusto, his wails filling the theatre and making my ears bleed (in a good way; plus, it balanced out the nosebleeds I incurred from where I was seated).
No fluff opening act was there to separate the sold-out crowd from the band all were there to see. Perhaps because of this, Soundgarden responded by playing one of the longest sets of any concert I’ve attended, second only to Pearl Jam (drummer Matt Cameron being the common denominator between the two. Wonder if there is something to that?). If songs were miles, Soundgarden ran a marathon, playing 26 songs prior to the encore. The performance was composed of a perfect grab-bag of a-sides and deep cuts, with each of their six albums and even their debut EP represented.
On the heels of “Spoonman”, the band launched into the psychotic cacophony of “Jesus Christ Pose”, the strobe flashing and spiraling lights projected on the walls being no friend to epileptics. The piece stood as a showcase for each member to display their chops. Guitarist Kim Thayil, the group’s workhorse, stood with the V-stance of Pete Townshend and the stoic presence of John Entwistle as he went about doing his business without flash, his crystalline guitar notes sounding as though they were played under swamp water. Cameron, a phenom behind the kit, launched into his first of several polyrhythm solos, while Ben Shepherd hunkered over his bass, tearing at his instrument like it was a parasite he was trying to pull from himself.
They continued with relatively obscure fare like “Gun” and “Rhinosaur”, Cornell introducing several of the songs by name, as though the fans didn’t know them. And though the group played tightly, there was a mood of freewheeling fun, that despite the dour subject matter of their songs, irreverence was aplenty. At one point, Cornell told a story of a previous show in Detroit where he walked onto an audience that held him solidly aloft. “I thought this was going to be my new thing,” he said, before stating his disappointment that a crowd in another unnamed city didn’t double as quite the concrete base. Later, as another example of the night’s convivial tone, Cornell prefaced a performance of “Tighter & Tighter” by saying they hadn’t played it in years. “So let’s butcher it!” he shouted to a mass of willing fans.
Another highlight of the night included the lumbering “Hunted Down”, a young Soundgarden’s equivalent to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. There was also “Taree”, during which the screen behind the stage depicted images of snowflakes or nuclear fallout drifting over wasted landscapes, and the stalker-creep menace of “Mailman”. The band reached their apotheosis on the one-two punch of the internal apocalypse of “Blow Up the Outside World” and the brooding “Fell on Black Days”. Wrapping it up was “Rowing” from comeback album King Animal. “Don’t know where I’m going / I just keep on rowing / Gotta row”, Cornell’s pre-recorded vocals intoned on a loop, over which he belted the verses, the chain-gang work song being the perfect closer.
After a brief break, or what some Soungarden aficionados can choose to perceive as the band’s cover of John Lennon’s “One Minute of Silence” from Ultramega OK, the foursome returned for two more songs, “Rusty Cage” and “Incessant Mace”. If there was one stain on the night, it was the use of the plodding “Incessant Mace” as the final song - truly a baffling choice. On the plus side, during the overly long rendition of that song, Shepherd somehow obtained an axe-tipped spear from a decorative knight statue near the stage, which he then passed off to Cornell who stomped around the stage with it. Let’s hope the theatre staff has more of those props on hand, though it would be far more rock ‘n’ roll if the band just defaced a piece of the building.
When the show ended, I could overhear a few gripes among attendees that the band didn’t play this song or that song. For a band to play 28 numbers in two and a half hours and still have people complaining they didn’t hear “their” songs is quite confounding. Personally, the show more than exceeded my expectations, faced down my doubts, and, at the bare minimum, left me able to say I saw Soundgarden in concert, something I thought an impossibility as little as a year ago.
1. Spoonman (Superunknown)
2. Jesus Christ Pose (Badmotorfinger)
3. Gun (Louder Than Love)
4. Let Me Drown (Superunknown)
5. By Crooked Steps (King Animal)
6. Rhinosaur (Down on the Upside)
7. Hands All Over (Louder Than Love)
8. Taree (King Animal)
9. My Wave (Superunknown)
10. The Day I Tried to Live (Superunknown)
11. Been Away Too Long (King Animal)
12. Hunted Down (Screaming Life EP)
13. Drawing Flies (Badmotorfinger)
14. Non-State Actor (King Animal)
15. Blow Up the Outside World (Down on the Upside)
16. Fell on Black Days (Superunknown)
17. Ugly Truth (Louder Than Love)
18. Tighter & Tighter (Down on the Upside)
19. Zero Chance (Down on the Upside)
20. Flower (Ultramega OK)
21. Outshined (Badmotorfinger)
22. Bones of Birds (King Animal)
23. Burden in My Hand (Down on the Upside)
24. Pretty Noose (Down on the Upside)
25. Mailman (Superunknown)
26. Rowing (King Animal)
Encore / One Minute of Silence
27. Rusty Cage (Badmotorfinger)
28. Incessant Mace (Ultramega OK)