July 22, 2011
Better than: Any food item you've stashed away since the '90s
Soundgarden didn't experiment or branch out in any way in its first visit to San Francisco in 15 years: no ballads, covers, unusual arrangements, extended monologues, or breakout solos.
What it did do was play 24 songs for 140 minutes, slipping into one heavy groove after another. The greatest fear you have in seeing a band reunited after 15 years is that it's going to suck: that the members have lost their chops, gotten fat, or simply don't care anymore. Soundgarden passed all those tests.
Guitarist Kim Thayil has graying hair more than halfway down his back. But from a distance, the other three are looking more California than Minnesota. Singer Chris Cornell has hair around all sides of his head, but it does stop at his collar. Bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron have the kind of clean-cut looks that would work in a marketing job if necessary. The front three all wore blue jeans, and all wore black or white T-shirts.
Cornell showed he could still scream early on, from the second song, "Spoonman." Then he conserved his energy for a while, using the mic-in-the-crowd trick on "Blow Up the Outside World" and talk-singing on "My Wave." By the ninth song, "Fell on Black Days," his holding back became obvious.
But the days of Cornell chugging whiskey backstage are apparently long over. To sing "Drawing Flies" for what he said was the first time for an audience in 15 years, he put down his guitar and enjoyed showing that he remembers the words. The band kicked into a sharp version of "Outshined" and Cornell drew out the last notes, back on his game.
The band also ebbed and flowed in prowess. Cameron was fast all night when he wanted to be, kicking some songs into faster rhythms than the recorded versions. Thayil made the finish of "Jesus Christ Pose" shatteringly noisy; on "Rusty Cage," he set a ripping pace.
Then came "Black Hole Sun," and the nightmare moment of nostalgia tours almost ensued. Lighters were held aloft along with dozens of cellphone cameras. Cornell, never into it, warned us beforehand something semicoherent about falling asleep during the song; his disinterest during it was noticeable. Fortunately, the song ended before anything truly awful could happen.
Two songs later, the band kicked into the highlight of the night. First, a version of "Burden in My Hand" where everything clicked. Thayil's riffs were shiny, going to the border of pop without crossing; Cornell was in full voice; and the rhythm was 5 percent faster than the disc. Then, a threatening, simmering version of "Head Down," which had the first band interaction of the night, when Shepherd put down his bass, stood beside the drum set, playing a hi-hat and snare with drumsticks while Cameron kept the hypnotic, unusually-complex-for-Soundgarden rhythm.
Song number 20, the last before the encores, was a daring, extreme version of "4th of July." The bass was so deep and so loud that it jiggled your spine, even far in the back. The physicality made the slow mosh groove feel like a warning.
Four songs made for a generous encore, and the band was as good at the end as it was all night. On "Like Suicide," Thayil finally took a notable guitar lead, which pointed up how much he had simply driven along with the overall sound for most of the show. The song typifies Soundgarden: Rather than surprise the listener, the band commits to a heavy groove and stays there. They finished with "Slaves and Bulldozers," with Cornell screaming as hard as he had all night. Thayil and Shepherd left their instruments against the amps for a final extended feedback squeal; Shepherd couldn't resist kicking and throwing a beer bottle against an amp as he walked off.
With no new songs, the show could have been from 1997. But considering the band's imminent breakup then, it was probably actually better last night.
Quotable: In his first of several very short conversations with the crowd, Cornell said, "We're Soundgarden. We played in this very room before. But I don't remember at all."
Unwired: Maybe wireless monitor connections weren't common for grunge bands in the '90s, because the band didn't seem to realize they could stroll around. Though the stage was huge for four guys, they never switched positions and generally stayed within a few feet of the same spot.
Music for fish: Four years ago I went to French Polynesia to go scuba diving for two weeks. On my very first dive there, my first time in the water in more than a year, I had been under about two minutes when a dolphin swam over to me. This is very rare for scuba divers, and the only time it has ever happened to me.
I remembered something I learned from a dolphin encounter tank in Florida: Dolphins are amused if humans sing to them, and will hang around longer. The first song that popped into my head was "Jesus Christ Pose," so I screamed it as well as you can while gripping an air hose with your teeth. The dolphin was amused and swam circles around me for a while, looking me in the eye. And I swam with it.
I danced with a dolphin to "Jesus Christ Pose:" it was among the greatest few minutes of my life. My friend Ashley said the dolphin was probably thinking, "Wow, I haven't heard that song since the '90s."