Loud love: Soundgarden's two-night return home
Grunge icons play a pair of powerhouse sets at Seattle's Paramount Theatre
By Travis Hay
"Sorry it's been so long. We meant to come back sooner," Chris Cornell said, apologizing to a capacity crowd during Soundgarden's first of two sold-out hometown shows at the Paramount Theatre.
The apology was necessary considering it was 1996 the last time the band performed a proper concert in Seattle. Yes, technically Soundgarden reunited in Seattle in 2010 after a near 15-year hiatus, calling themselves "Nudedragons" (an anagram for Soundgarden) during a not-so-secret-show at an intimate club in front of around 1,000 people. Tickets to that show sold out in minutes, making these two Paramount concerts the band's first accessible local shows in almost 17 years. And for their part, Cornell and Co. made up for lost time by playing for two-and-a-half-hours each night with both shows boasting setlists of more than 25 songs.
To call the shows a success would be an understatement. Cornell showed that he still possesses an impressive set of pipes and remains one of the most distinctive voices in rock. He can't reach the high wails like he used to, but when he opened up and let out his full roar it made for several grunge-y goosebumps moments. Kim Thayil's distinct guitar playing remains unmatched. Unlike most shredding ax-slingers, he works without the clichéd flair of a power stance or guitar face. He simply stands in place and lays down face-melting solos, letting his work speak for itself. Bassist Ben Shepard's deep and heavy notes felt so booming it wouldn't have been a surprise if the venue's ornate crown molding suffered a few cracks as a result of the bowel-shaking rumble. And drummer Matt Cameron looked at home behind the kit with his old mates. As great as he is in his other job as Pearl Jam's drummer, Cameron's performance brought into question whether Eddie Vedder's band needs to seek a new skinsman so Soundgarden can continue to tour and make more records.
Speaking of making more records, the band is touring behind the criminally underrated "King Animal," which was one of the better hard rock records of 2012. Hopefully these shows weren't part of a one-off reunion tour and instead results in the resuscitation of the band's career because Soundgarden proved to be as powerful and visceral onstage as they were back in the '90s.
The first night's set opened with "Flower," off 1988's "Ultramega OK" and from there a solid slab of dark and heavy deep cuts and hit singles followed. "Jesus Christ Pose" came a few songs later and not only was it one of the most well executed songs of the night; it was one of the best moments of both shows.
The song was the perfect combination of Thayil's blistering guitar work, Cameron's thunderous drumming, Shepard's booming low-end and Cornell's trademark howls. Those elements came together to create one of those rare, spine-tingling concert experiences when the music transcends what's happening onstage and you're left in awe of a group of masters of their crafts. It served as a fitting welcome back for the band that came crashing back onto the scene after a 17-year absence with a song titled "Been Away Too Long."
The brooding "Gun" with its slow buildup and furious climax was another classic cut that made for an early highlight. The moment when Cornell shouts, "F--- it up" and the song kicks into high gear is the grunge equivalent to dubstep's "drop" and it was glorious to behold in person. Of course the sets also included several of the band's hits from the heyday of grunge including "Black Hole Sun," "Spoonman," "Outshined" and "Blow Up the Outside World." Soundgarden are a mighty band with a very loud catalog and their bounty of radio-friendly songs complemented the power of the rest of their material, creating a welcome buffer from what could have been an overwhelming audible assault.
As great as it was to hear old material the shows weren't all about taking trips down memory lane. Plenty of cuts from "King Animal" were peppered into both setlists and the new songs fit right in alongside their road-worn counterparts. The band's current single "By Crooked Steps" and the wonderfully droning "Rowing," which closed out the first night's main set, were the best of the new songs performed. But not all of the new songs went over well. The made-for-Hollywood song "Live to Rise" and "Taree" off "King Animal" were the two clunkers of the shows with both killing the pace of the first night's otherwise great set.
During the first night the band was joined by Pearl Jam's Mike McCready for "Tighter & Tighter." Prior to the song's opening notes Cornell prompted the crowd to encourage McCready and Thayil to play off each other's riffs but the encouragement wasn't necessary as the two shredded away, matching each other's fretwork riff for riff. McCready's animated jumps and frantic stage movements served as quite a contrast to Thayil's stoic style.
McCready wasn't the only grunge alumnus in the building. Alice in Chains drummer Sean Kinney and Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm were in the crowd (Nirvana's Krist Novoselic opted to catch the band's Portland concert a few nights prior). Like the band's loyal local fans, the old grunge guard was curious to see whether Soundgarden's return would be a loud and proud moment or a loud and lame train wreck and the band proved that their reunion is all of the former and none of the latter.
Both nights' setlists were a hardcore fan's dream but the second night's song selection packed more of a punch with the likes of "Big Dumb Sex," "Incessant Mace" and "Rusty Cage" making appearances. But it almost didn't matter what songs the band played because the adoring crowds loved every moment of both shows. At the end of each night everyone left with smiles on their faces, a ringing in their ears and hopes that they don't have to wait another 17 years before Soundgarden's next hometown show.
*Photos by Gene Ambo/Retna Ltd.
Editor's note: A previous version of this post contained inaccurate information that has since been corrected and updated.