The Showbox at the Market hosted the most buzzed-about band rehearsal ever in Seattle Friday night when the reunited Soundgarden played its first show in nearly 13 years.
Being away from the stage for nearly a decade and a half didn’t seem to phase Soundgarden, which is gearing up for a headlining spot at Lollapalooza in August and other tour dates. Once the band hit its groove a few songs into its 18-song set the seminal grunge rockers were on top of their game and the ecstatic sold-out crowd was on top of the world. For 90 minutes they took a group of fist-pumping, mosh-pitting, hair-swinging fans on a ride filled with hits, deep album cuts and rarities.
All the pieces were in place for the makings of Soundgarden’s monstrous hybrid of straight-ahead rock and powerful, dark metal. Kim Thayil’s massive riffs, Chris Cornell’s wailing vocals, Ben Sheperd’s booming bass licks and Matt Cameron’s thunderous drumming all played equal roles in the band’s triumphant return. Things kicked off with “Spoonman” signaling what could’ve been a safe set of radio staples. But the minute the heavy, droning opening notes of “Gun” began, which was the second song of the set, it was clear the show wouldn’t be a romp through the hits (“Burden in My Hand,” “Blackhole Sun” and “Jesus Christ Pose” were noticeably missing from the set list). Soundgarden not only proved they are back they also made a statement that they’ve come back on their own terms, and those terms don’t necessarily involve catering to the members of their fanbase who know them best because of commercial radio.
The decision to stick to mostly older material – although I suppose all of the band’s material can be considered old since the band’s last studio record was released14 years ago – was definitely the right move. While the band didn’t have the same sense of danger and volatility it held back in its Sub Pop and SST days, songs like “Big Dumb Sex,” and the band’s first single, 1987’s “Hunted Down” sounded fresh, aggressive and somewhat raw when the band dusted off its catalog. The latter is being reissued by Sub Pop as a limited-edition 7” single today. Surprisingly, the show ended with a cover of The Doors’ “Waiting For The Sun.” The band gave the song a near demonic twist with Sheperd putting a heavy emphasis on the low end and Thayil’s guitar taking the riff in the devilish direction of heavy metal territory.
I was lucky enough to see the band twice when the group was in its prime – once in 1994 at the Kitsap Bowl and again in 1996 at the Gorge as part of Lollapalooza where they performed after the Ramones and before Metallica – and Friday’s show was on par with how I remember Soundgarden. Sure Cornell couldn’t quite hit his howl as high as he used to and he definitely didn’t hold the notes for as long as he did when he was in his twenties, but that’s to be expected. Oh, and unlike the past Soundgarden shows I’ve witnessed Cornell kept his shirt on (sorry ladies). But don’t think because he remained fully clothed that he isn’t still the golden god of grunge.
If there is any bad blood between the members of the Soundgarden camp they did a good job of masking any animosity. The guys were all smiles throughout the evening. During the bridge of “Outshined” Cornell playfully waved the microphone stand over his head. When he wasn’t bashing away at the skins Cameron could barely contain his grin and Sheperd could also be seen smiling on occasion. Cornell even walked behind Thayil during a guitar solo and raised his hands in the air encouraging the crowd to give it up for the lead axe man. It was pretty clear they were having fun together while working out the kinks and that there was some chemistry happening on stage.
While you could tell the band was having fun, they were still officially “rehearsing” so for the most part the guys were all business which made for little banter between songs. At one point Cornell thanked the fans for being positive about the reunion and another he said the band wasn’t going to just play songs they stopped playing in 1998. He said the band would be playing songs they stopped playing in 1990, hence the depth of the set list. Other than those two comments there wasn’t much interaction with the audience.
Watching Soundgarden, which has sold an estimated 20 million records worldwide, play to a hometown crowd in a club setting (the Showbox has a capacity of about 1,000) made it feel like 1991 all over again. Adding to that atmosphere was Chris Cornell’s hairstyle and the large number of grunge icons in the crowd. Cornell grew his hair out for the reunion and while it’s not at its Louder Than Love level of length and volume, it is at shoulder length which is a far cry from the spiky and short hairdo he’s been sporting the last decade. During “Flower” he shook his head left and right as if he was trying to remember how to rock out with his new locks and while doing so he ended up looking a lot like his old self. Spotted in the crowd were dozens of major players from the days of the OK Hotel and Velvet Elvis. Mark Arm, Kurt Bloch, Bruce Fairweather, Stone Gossard, founding Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamamoto and even Sub Pop head honcho Jonathan Poneman were on hand to witness the band’s return.
The evening definitely felt historically significant for Seattle’s music community but it wasn’t solely because of who was in attendance. Two days earlier at the same venue hosted another grunge reunion of note. Members of Mother Love Bone reunited with Shawn Smith helming the microphone in place of the deceased Andy Wood and Malfunkshun, Wood’s band with his Brother Kevin, also took the stage with Smith handling the vocals. Both bands were instrumental in the development of the genre. The concert also took place during the first night of this year’s Coachella Music Festival, which is where earlier this year the band was rumored to make its first reunion appearance, although for the longest time the possibility of a reunion was always denied.
In 2005 during Cornell’s days in Audioslave I had the opportunity to interview him on his tour bus. It was supposed to be a 10-minute conversation but I ended up getting more than an hour of face time with him while he was doing vocal warmups. The experience remains one of the highlights of my career and the result was this profile. During our conversation (read the full transcript here) I asked him about the possibility of reuniting with his Soundgarden bandmates and he made it sound like it would never happen.
“I don’t think there are too many rock bands in history that can look at the beginning and middle and ending of themselves and see what I see when I think of Soundgarden. I think from the beginning through the middle and the end it was such a perfect ride and such a perfect legacy to leave,” said Cornell. “(Getting back together) would take the lid off that and could possibly change what up to now, to me, seems like the perfect lifespan of the band. I can’t think of any reason to mess with that.”
Obviously things have changed quite a bit since then. Rumblings of a Soundgarden reunion started when Cornell and the rest of Audioslave split in 2007. But the rumors really began to fly in March of last year when three-quarters of the band performed three Soundgarden songs on stage together at the Crocodile with Tad Doyle of TAD (who was also in the crowd Friday) fronting the band. It was a jaw-dropping moment to witness and after that show the flames were stoked for a reunion.
Cornell officially announced the reunion and the launch of a website, Soundgardenworld.com, on New Year’s Eve. Details about the reunion were pretty much nonexistent until it was announced the band would play its first reunion concert at this year’s Lollapalooza a few weeks ago (take that Coachella). Thursday morning a rumor about a secret Soundgarden show at the Showbox was leaked onto the Internet but there was confusion over whether it was a private party or a public show. Later Thursday afternoon Billboard.com reported the show was indeed happening and the cat was out of the bag.
No information was made public about how to buy tickets, which led to fans lining up outside of the Showbox Friday and waiting for up to five hours to have a chance to buy tickets only to find out the venue was not selling tickets at its box office. Soundgarden eventually ended up playing under the name Nudedragons, an anagram for Soundgarden, and tickets were sold exclusively online. Unfortunately, the email blast with the information for how purchase tickets was randomly sent to fans who signed up for the band’s fanclub which meant some fans got the email while others were left waiting for news about how to purchse tickets. I waited in line at the Showbox to buy tickets and I didn’t get an email from the fanclub until 12:09 p.m., a good two hours after the show had already sold out. I was able to attend the show because a very generous friend offered to take me as his +1. Here’s to hoping the next time Soundgarden plays in town the ticket-buying process won’t be as frustrating.
It took 13 years for Soundgarden to reunite and return to the stage and when they did they seemed to pick up right where they left off. Now that the band has shook off some of the rust it built up after being out of commission for so long there’s no telling what will happen next. If the band sounds as good as it did Friday at future reunion gigs maybe it will lead to a bigger local show (I’m looking at you Bumbershoot), or even better, a new album.
Searching With My Good Eye Closed
Beyond the Wheel
Fell on Black Days
Nothing to Say
Blow Up The Outside World
Slaves and Bulldozers
Get On The Snake
Big Dumb Sex
Waiting for the Sun (Doors Cover)