Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 8: Chris Cornell, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 10/20/13

Benaroya Hall is the home of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It's not the first place you'd think of to see a performance by a pop or rock artist, but the SSO has done things like this for quite a while -- presumably to appeal to a wider, and younger, audience than classical-only shows would be able to do.

Chris Cornell took his turn on the stage this past weekend, and although he remarked about how great it was to be back in his hometown and get such a warm reception, he clearly felt a little uneasy in his surroundings. "I feel like we all broke into somebody's parents' living room," he joked -- and he decided that lobbing a few F-bombs and flipping the bird toward the rafters would make him feel more in his element. Whatever works, I guess.

Chris is on his on one-man acoustic tour, performing songs from throughout his career. I love his voice, and I've always found his lyrics intriguing, as they seem to occupy a weird space somewhere between abstract and observational. There's a lot of poignant stuff about the human condition, but also a lot of things like:

In my eyes, indisposed, in disguises no one knows
Hides the face, lies the snake, and the sun in my disgrace

Which sounds great when Chris sings it, but good luck making heads or tails of what "Black Hole Sun" is about. (More on that later.) I remember Johnny Cash once saying that when he covered Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," he thought the lyrics were some of the most bizarre he was ever given to work with.

But who cares about the lyrics, really, when you have Chris Cornell's amazing voice to listen to for nearly three hours? I mean, seriously, of all the great things to come out of the Seattle grunge scene in the '90s, the greatest of all has to be his voice -- immediately identifiable, with an insane range that can shift from soft, low, and emotive to loud, wild, and shrieking in the blink of an eye. I heard a little bit of a rasp in his voice at this show, and he seemed to strain just a little bit when he tried to belt out a few lines -- but for all the wear and tear he has surely put on his vocal cords over the years, he still sounds fantastic. If he's not 100%, I wouldn't put him below 90%. I noticed that on Soundgarden's King Animal album that came out last year, he sounded a little more reserved and didn't howl as much as he has on past Soundgarden albums. And this acoustic tour can surely give him a bit of a break, too -- after all, it has to be easier to sing over one acoustic guitar than over the roar of a rock band. So he's being smart about preserving his voice. Good for him.

This is the first time I'd seen Chris in any live context, and as I took in some of the excellent tunes from his '90s peak work, including Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog, it made me wish I could have seen him at the height of his fame. Unfortunately, in the '90s I was in a total prog-snob phase and tuned out the grunge revolution completely. Little could I have imagined, as I was walking around the campus of Western Michigan University circa 1994, listening to things like Yes' new Talk album, that someday I'd be living in Chris Cornell's hometown, the epicenter of grunge, and looking forward to seeing him in concert at his homecoming show.

Chris said he hasn't lived in Seattle for about 10 years, and he seemed genuinely humbled by the raucous standing ovation he got as he walked onstage. He said when he was a kid growing up here, he annoyed people and no one could stand him! It wasn't quite a Sally Field "you like me!" moment, but it was nice to see a human and somewhat vulnerable side to a guy who's been a superstar known around the world. It seems success hasn't jaded him. But from some of the comments he made about the rough patch he went through in the late '90s, he may just be happy that he survived, got sober, and is still making music for his fans.

Not that he wasn't above ribbing some of the more enthusiastic and vocal members of the audience throughout the show, but it was all in good fun. One fun example: Early in the show, a woman somewhere shouted out, "I love you, Chris!" Laughs and applause throughout the crowd. Chris smiled and said, "I love you, too!" A moment later, a guy calls out the same thing. Chris looks in his direction and says, "I know you just did that to be ironic, but now all your friends think you're gay."

There was a turntable to one side of the stage, and before Chris came out to start the show, his guitar tech put on a record for us to listen to. It was Hank Williams. "Your Cheatin' Heart," and then "Hey, Good Lookin'." Not what you'd expect at a Chris Cornell show! When Chris walked onto the stage, he lifted the needle, and after saying his hellos, he put on another platter and sang, karaoke style, to an instrumental version of "Silence the Voices," from his solo album Carry On. He described it as a song that asks where the humanity of our leaders goes when they decide to start a war. Powerful stuff to open the show.

After that, Chris grabbed a guitar and weaved his way through his sizable body of work -- sometimes standing before the mic, and other times seated.

Next to him was a table with a red telephone on it. That was odd. Was he expecting a call from the president? Fortunately, someone in the crowd asked him about it, and he told us that it used to belong to Jeff Buckley. Turns out they used to be friends, and somewhere along the way they both discovered that they owned nearly identical red telephones. After Jeff Buckley died, his mother gave the phone to Chris, and he says he's become like a superstitious ball player about it ever since -- it has to be onstage with him, where he admitted he felt a little naked without anyone else up there with him. Obviously, security blankets can take all forms.

About half of the show consisted of solo material, which I admit I'm not as familiar with, but I liked what I heard. I'm so clueless about pop culture that I didn't even know he sang the theme song to the James Bond Casino Royale reboot! He said when he agreed to do the song, called "You Know My Name," everyone just assumed he did it because he was a Bond fan. But for him, he said it was about joining an elite club that Paul McCartney belonged to. When it comes to Bond themes, Chris said, there's Paul McCartney and then there's everybody else. As a huge McCartney fan myself, I can't say I disagree. Sir Paul's performance of "Live and Let Die" this past summer at Safeco Field is ingrained in my mind as one of the greatest performances I've ever seen, at the single best concert I've ever attended.

As for the more familiar material, Chris played five pieces from Soundgarden, six from Audioslave, and three from Temple of the Dog. He had some guest performers along the way, too. Bhi Bhiman, his opening act, accompanied him on "Hunger Strike," singing the parts Eddie Vedder originally handled. Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd came out to perform on "Halfway There" and "Fell on Black Days." (Guitarist Kim Thayil was there, too, and briefly stepped out from the side of the stage to wave at the crowd, at Chris' prompting -- but he didn't play.) Even Chris' guitar tech, Stephen Ferrara, joined in on "Never Far Away," one of Chris' solo pieces.

There were a few cover songs mixed in as well, including two Beatles tunes -- "Dear Prudence" and "A Day in the Life." He also played Mother Love Bone's "Man of Golden Words," the song whose lyrics gave rise to the name of the Temple of the Dog project. And that song, in turn, segued into the chorus from Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Very nice.

But the strangest cover song, and probably the strangest moment of the show, came when Chris told us the story of how he set out to learn U2's song "One." He said he went online to look up the lyrics, and he started playing the chords to the words, but then he realized that what he was reading wasn't U2's song. It was Metallica's song "One," their brutal, Johnny Got His Gun-inspired antiwar epic. But instead of looking up the U2 lyrics, Chris decided to keep going and created a mashup of the two "Ones." And the morbid Metallica lyrics actually work against the plaintive U2 melody! That was a stroke of accidental genius.

"Black Hole Sun" didn't come around until the encore, but it was worth the wait to hear such a powerful song in such a radically different setting. Grunge unplugged -- it worked for Nirvana back in the day, so why not Soundgarden?

Fun fact: Chris said that the title "Black Hole Sun" came from something he misheard a news anchor say on TV. He didn't elaborate, but he said he got to thinking about what he thought he heard, and he pretty much ended up writing the song on the short drive from Woodinville, an east-side suburb, back to Seattle. Kind of funny, after all the overwrought lyrical interpretations I've seen people giving that song over the years.

Chris closed the show with "Blow Up the Outside World," in tribute to his Soundgarden bandmates. As the song began to wind down, Chris knelt over his effects board and triggered a loop of his guitar and vocals. The loops built on each other, with a layer of distortion and feedback swirling around the whole thing and getting louder and louder. As it all degenerated into a pulsating wall of noise, Chris walked over to the turntable and put Hank Williams back on. He shut off his effects and said goodnight as "Cold Cold Heart" began, its crackly, ancient-sounding fiddles and steel guitars standing in sharp contrast to the cacophony that had just been ringing through the auditorium. 

And that was that! An abrupt ending to two hours and 45 minutes of outstanding music. I hope I get a chance to see Chris performing with Soundgarden one day, but until then, this show left me with one poignant line from "Black Hole Sun" running through my head:

No one sings like you anymore.

Well done, Mr. Cornell. You did your hometown proud.


Silence the Voices (solo)
Scar on the Sky (solo)
You Know My Name (solo)
Dandelion (Audioslave)
Cleaning My Gun (solo)
Sunshower (solo)
Original Fire (Audioslave)
#1 Zero (Audioslave)
Halfway There (Soundgarden) w/Ben Shepherd
Fell on Black Days (Soundgarden) w/Ben Shepherd
Seasons (solo)
The Day I Tried to Live (Soundgarden)
One (cover)
When I'm Down (solo)
Man of Golden Words (cover) / Comfortably Numb chorus
Wooden Jesus (Temple of the Dog)
Call Me a Dog (Temple of the Dog)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog) w/Bhi Bhiman
Dear Prudence (cover)
Never Far Away (solo) w/Stephen Ferrara
I Am the Highway (Audioslave)
Doesn't Remind Me (Audioslave)
A Day in the Life (cover)


Misery Chain (solo)
Like a Stone (Audioslave)
Can't Change Me (solo)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
Blow Up the Outside World (Soundgarden)

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