There’s a sense of rare air in and around the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on this Friday night as music fans gather for a special occasion that’s been 25 years in the making. Temple of the Dog is in the house and this tour is one that fans have only dreamed of until now. The band’s 1991 album was a one-off project that only found acclaim after the members’ other bands took off. But now these musicians have at last joined together again for a harmonic convergence that makes this arguably the most eagerly awaited tour of 2016.
Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell was so moved by the heroin overdose of his friend and former roommate Andrew Wood — the singer of another Seattle band called Mother Love Bone — that he started writing songs about Wood to get his blues out. “The death of the innocence of the scene,” Cornell would say of Wood’s untimely demise at age 24. Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard were two other members of Mother Love Bone who were suddenly at a crossroads, so it was only natural that they’d start working with Cornell on the project (which had also come to include Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron.) Ament and Gossard were soon forming Pearl Jam and so the band’s new lead guitarist Mike McCready also wound up joining the project (with singer Eddie Vedder guesting on a few songs as well.)
Soundgarden and Pearl Jam both soared to stardom in 1992, leading to the re-release of Temple of the Dog’s eponymous album which was snatched up by fans eager for more music. Those fans were pleased to discover that it was no collection of B-sides, but a great album of heartfelt songs that treat rock as the sacred soul-saving music it can be when done with reverence. Rumor has it that Pearl Jam skipped a fall tour this year due to Vedder’s desire to follow his hometown Chicago Cubs in the playoffs. But while West Coast fans were therefore left with no Pearl Jam shows in 2016, they reap an even rarer bounty with this tour that basically is Pearl Jam save for Cornell on vocals in place of Vedder.
“Over the years I’ve heard hundreds of people come up to me to say how much this record means to them, and it has grown into this mythical thing. That’s why we’re going to go out and tour and try to play these songs for the first time properly,” McCready told Teamrock.com in a pre-tour interview, acknowledging the special place the album holds in the hearts of so many music fans who came of age along with the rise of alternative rock in the early ‘90s. “We wanted to do the one thing we never got to do … play shows and see what it feels like to be the band that we walked away from 25 years ago,” added Cornell at the band’s website.
The arena is packed and the crowd roars as the lights go down and Cornell leads the band through the TOTD opener, “Say Hello to Heaven”. The first of many crowd sing-alongs takes place on the chorus, an indication of how well the fans love this material that has long flown under the mainstream cultural radar. “Wooden Jesus” and “Your Saviour” push the energy level higher, with Cornell in top form and the band gelling on the latter jam to conjure a deep classic rock intensity. There’s an electricity in the air that does, in fact, feel like a Pearl Jam show, no surprise since the band’s guitarists, bassist and drummer are all onstage (with Cameron having joined Pearl Jam in 1998, following Soundgarden’s 1997 breakup.)
The tour also pays tribute to Mother Love Bone and one of the great moments in alt-rock history occurs with MLB’s seminal “Stardog Champion”, an anthemic rocker from the band’s first and only LP released shortly after Wood’s passing. The song’s lyrics open with a salute to San Francisco, so seeing the song performed here in “The City” after all these years is downright historic (and even more so if you were a San Francisco State student in 1992 who named his fantasy basketball team the San Francisco Stardogs.) It was one of his “anthems for survival songs” according to former girlfriend and muse Xana La Fuente and that anthemic quality rings through here with electrifying power. The band follows with MLB’s shimmering “Stargazer” and then Cornell’s “Seasons” from 1992’s Singles soundtrack, a tribute to the Seattle music scene. That soundtrack is where many fans first became aware of Mother Love Bone (and several other key bands of the era) and so the Zeppish “Seasons” remains a pivotal moment in time and a fan favorite deep cut that resonates beautifully here.
A surprise cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” rocks out with a punk funk power that gets the crowd going as Cornell wails over the heavy groove. McCready unleashes some of his molten six-string ferocity on “Four Walled World”, the secret weapon of the band always ready to melt face at a moment’s notice. McCready gets to cut loose again on “Pushing Forward Back” over a monster groove from Ament, Cameron and Gossard as Temple of the Dog’s full rock power continues to surge.
A deep moment occurs when Cornell asks the crowd to sing Eddie Vedder’s part on the next song since he couldn’t be present, leading to a spine-tingling audience duet on “Hunger Strike”. To hear a packed arena all singing, “I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence, but I can’t feed on the powerless when my cup’s already overfilled” is easily one of the decade’s most inspiring moments in rock. It’s moments like these where music fans can rightfully feel genuine hope for humanity at a time when the world seems to be going mad. An acoustic-oriented cover of David Bowie’s “Quicksand” follows, with Cornell emoting in a way that feels like it complements the populist sentiment of “Hunger Strike” when he sings, “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, Just a mortal with the potential of a superman.”
“We’re gonna try to squeeze in as many Mother Love Bone songs as we can because that’s part of why we’re doing this,” Cornell explains before the band launches into the hard rocking “Heartshine”. It’s another electrifying peak in an evening full of them, with Cameron and Ament connecting on the dynamic groove and McCready slaying a wicked wah-wah solo. “River of Deceit” from McCready’s Mad Season project with late great Alice in Chains’ singer Layne Staley is another deep cut crowd pleaser that finds the audience singing along yet again, sandwiched in between MLB songs before the incendiary “Holy Roller”.
Temple of the Dog is simply on fire here, setting the stage for the set-closing climax on their album’s musical centerpiece, the epic “Reach Down”, a song inspired by a dream where Cornell was visited by Wood. When Cornell sings “You gotta reach down and pick the crowd up, Carry back in your hands, To the promised land”, it functions as a cue to McCready to cut loose over the monster groove on what is easily one of the biggest jams recorded on an album in the ‘90s. Hence, the audience is transported to a musical promised land with a dynamic payoff to close the set in soaring fashion.
Cornell comes back to deliver a solo acoustic rendition of MLB’s “Man of Golden Words”, saying it was the song where he felt Wood really took his songwriting to the next level and that “his true love of music was in this song.” It was here that Wood coined the phrase “temple of the dog” and so it’s another seminal moment in the creation of this band as Cornell summons Wood’s spirit once more — “I want to show you something, like joy inside my heart, Seems I been living in the temple of the dog, Where would I live if I were a man of golden words, Or would I live at all, Words and music – my only tools, Communication… Let’s fall in love with music, The driving force in our living, The only international language…” Cornell segues into a bit of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” at the end, a fitting sentiment due to Wood’s drug problems.
The band returns for “Times of Trouble”, the opening chords of which receive a huge cheer from the audience. Cornell then relates how the band is more or less done with the TOTD material and will now move into the world of “self-indulgence,” which proves delightfully indulgent indeed with a scintillating rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand”. Cameron seems like he could destroy the universe here, while Cornell conjures visions of alternate realities come true when he sings, “Oh, the fun to have, To live the dreams we always had, Oh, the songs to sing, When we at last return again”. The song serves as a fitting anthem for the tour, with the TOTD and MLB songs finally getting the audience they deserve.
Cornell introduces another ultra-deep cut with “Missing”, a rocker from the same era as “Seasons” but never played until this tour. The band makes it sound like another classic as the encore turns into a bonus set, much like at most Pearl Jam shows. A grunged-out version of the Cure’s “Fascination Street” keeps the crowd rocking with a heavy bassline and psychedelic guitars as the band displays more of their impressive diversity. “Let’s continue with some self-indulgence,” Cornell says cheerfully as an introduction to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, the epic 1969 anti-war anthem that continues to resonate with deeper truth as each year of planetary conflict passes by. Hence rock ‘n’ roll once again sheds light on what’s really going on in a society where the corrupt corporate media consistently sweeps the darkness under a rug.
It’s been an amazing show from start to finish and a rare opportunity to watch big time rock stars return to their musical roots. Fans can only hope that Temple of the Dog will continue on as more than just a one-time project because there’s a special spiritual connection with this music, and you can see it in the blissful faces of everyone in the building as they move toward the exits.