[5 December 2011]
Chris Cornell entered the small stage at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut to excited applause. He gave thanks to his opener, Craig Wedren (formerly frontman for the band Shudder to Think) before he regaled the audience with some history of the venue itself. A former court house, the space hosted judicial proceedings that, in some cases, culminated in an execution. Cornell joked “if you choose the right song and play it at the right speed, [the dead’s] hands would come out of the floor.”
Starting out as the frontman of the now reformed, grunge pioneers Soundgarden, Cornell has been in the music scene for almost thirty years. He had moved into a solo career by the end of the ‘90s before fronting Audioslave, a band with former Rage Against the Machine members (ne de la Rocha). Well known for possessing a considerable vocal range, Cornell has featured on at least twelve studio albums (including Temple of the Dog). I was not familiar with at least half of those going into the show. But I knew I wanted to see him perform stripped down in a uniquely small venue. He is currently on tour in support of his just released solo live album Songbook after having participated in Pearl Jam’s twenty year celebrations and prior to heading out on a full Soundgarden tour in Australia next year.
Having caught Eddie Vedder’s solo show in Connecticut earlier this year, I was a bit afraid the crowd would interrupt even Cornell’s tremendous pipes as they had at Vedder’s show. It turned out my worries were for naught. The audience was respectful to Cornell, refraining from shouting till after a song was over. Cornell expressed his gratitude, “This is perfect. You’re listening to the songs. It’s an acoustic show and its very quiet. Then, in between, it gets rowdy like a bar, everyone’s screaming.”
The perfect audience witnessed Cornell being truly generous with the music; for many, it was the equivalent of a runner’s high. In return, he gave them a nearly two hour set, tirelessly performing song after song (twenty five in total) from his full oeuvre, plus throwing in a few unexpected covers (though if you think about it the fact Cornell has covered Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in concert is pretty surprising).
After his opening remarks, Cornell introduced “Scar on the Sky”, from his second solo album, Carry On, before going into a cover of “Satisfied Mind” (I didn’t recognize it but found out from my seat neighbors). It wasn’t long after that he sang “Can’t Change Me”, from Euphoria Morning. During the compelling song the audience sat so mesmerized that one might have confused them for the recently departed. So it went for the evening. No one dared peep during the songs.
Acoustic versions of Audioslave and Soundgarden songs, like “Be Yourself”, “Like a Stone” or “Mind Riot” were elevated in their lyrical intensity as the heavy rock guitar solos and percussion were cast aside. One side effect however, likely a result of the loss of additional instruments, was many songs were perceptibly more abrupt than their studio counterparts. Neither the opener nor any guests brought additional instrumentation to the stage. By the end of the show, the single guitar routine became a bit tedious but the quality never wavered. Not surprisingly, Cornell’s voice never flagged. Nor did his hands, as he strummed the guitar for all songs save one. That occurred midway into the set as “When I’m Down” required a prerecorded piano backing track play off a turntable set to the right of him.
The switch was a pleasant surprise since I didn’t even know the turntable was there amongst seven guitars. The sole other noticeable stage prop was a telephone. The red, corded device to Cornell’s left sat patiently, but no urgent call from Moscow, or Seattle, came through the hotline. It would have been interesting if it rang before “Hunger Strike”. Even still, the audience screamed in delighted unison as Cornell gave a preface to the song without getting into names. He mentioned that this was the last song he was working on with Temple of the Dog, and it grew when this guy in the room “started singing… then it became a real song”. The classic song didn’t sound like it had aged even a year.
Towards the end, Cornell strummed so furiously on a cover of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” that I thought for sure he’d break some strings. All the manic distress of the interlude was apparent and the audience clapped along as he sang the next lines. His tribute to rock titans also included a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” tagged onto the end of a Mother Love Bone song.
Cover songs were satisfying flourishes, but a few of the highlights were “Like a Stone”, “I am the Highway” and “Fell on Black Days” as each of them were equal to, if not better than, their band counterparts. “I am the Highway”, during the encore, works because Cornell’s indefatigable voice elucidated the clear mastery of each fragile line and thoughtful reflection contained in the song. As Cornell intoned, “I am not your autumn moon / I am the night”, the audience gleaned the permanence of the music he has crafted.
Scar on the Sky
A Satisfied Mind [Porter Wagoner]
Can’t Change Me
Be Yourself (Audioslave)
Wide Awake (Audioslave)
Fell on Black Days (Soundgarden)
Call Me a Dog (Temple of the Dog)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
Wooden Jesus (Temple of the Dog)
Man of Golden Words [Mother Love Bone]> Comfortably Numb [Pink Floyd]
When I’m Down
Mind Riot (Soundgarden)
Burden in My Hand (Soundgarden)
Getaway Car (Soundgarden)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
Thank You [Led Zeppelin]
Like a Stone (Audioslave)
A Day in the Life [The Beatles]
I am the Highway (Audioslave)
Long as I can See the Light [Creedence Clearwater Revival]
Cleaning my Gun
Blow up the Outside World (Soundgarden)