Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Chris Cornell Steps Out of His Bands' Shadows ... But Not Too Far

It's a common rock and roll story: A band breaks up, the lead singer goes out on his own, and he feels the need to make a break with his past. He'll limit the number of the band's hits he'll play during his shows (or refuse altogether to perform any of them). And he'll exhibit an attitude to his fans of, "I'm a new artist now."

Well, Chris Cornell, the former lead singer of the Seattle grunge pioneers Soundgarden and the supergroup Audioslave, is not that guy.

Just the opposite. Cornell's sold-out, two-hour set at the Beacon Theater last night was weighted heavily with songs from his former bands. Mixing in radio staples with more obscure fan favorites, Cornell kept the crowd on its feet throughout the night, singing and head-bobbing along. When the audience took over the vocals on a solo acoustic take of "I Am the Highway," Cornell seemed genuinely impressed, widening his eyes and quickly injecting a shocked "nice" before starting the next verse.

It was clear that Cornell did not harbor even a hint of resentment over playing the music of the last nearly 20 years of his career. On this tour, he has made major changes to the set from night to night, drawing on a Pearl Jam-like large reservoir of songs from his past that he could pull out at any given show. Last night featured radio hits like "Black Hole Sun" next to more obscure offerings like "Slaves And Bulldozers."

While Cornell seemed more than happy to relive the music of his Soundgarden and Audioslave days, it was hard not to see how much he has matured and grown. Anyone expecting to see the manic, long-haired presence who owned the stage at Soundgarden shows in the 1990s would be surprised at what they observed last night. Cornell, looking more like a Hollywood actor than a rock musician in salon-approved tousled short hair and a fashionably distressed ensemble of a sequined black T-shirt, jeans and boots, was decidedly laid back, spending much of the night standing in the center of the vast, unadorned stage, mostly crouching and singing his heart out. When he did move around, there was a relaxed, go-with-the-flow feel to his demeanor. He was emotional and passionate in his singing, but he didn't force histrionics that might have felt forced at this stage of his career.

Cornell interacted with his tight, energetic and young four-piece backing band like he was the big brother, clearly in charge but also proud of what the guys were doing. It was telling that in a show billed as "Chris Cornell," there was not one but two extended drum solos (the first coming in the middle of "Spoonman"), and nobody seemed happier about it than Cornell himself. The band was like the greatest Soundgarden and Audioslave cover band in the world, which might sound like an insult until you consider that Cornell was singing with them. Since bands tour all the time now with only one or two original members aboard (and often, not with the lead singer), by comparison, the songs from Cornell's past did not suffer all that much from the change in musicians behind him (as great as those two bands were).

Another sign that things have changed in Cornell's world was apparent in the back-up singers he brought out for "No Such Thing," the killer first single from his latest solo CD "Carry On": His two toddler children. It was cute at first, but I could have done without him spending most of the fast, rocking song sitting on the stage between them, kind of checked out from the performance and more concerned about the kids. A quick intro and return to the wings would have been a better idea.

Cornell dropped a four-and-a-half song acoustic set (the band returned during the fifth number) into the middle of the show, admitting to the audience that he doesn't like watching a guy and a guitar for too long. But he pulled the set off, adding an additional layer of emotion to the Audioslave standards "I Am The Highway," "Like A Stone" and "Doesn't Remind Me."

Cornell's voice is instantly recognizable. His clear but aggressive vocals, equally ready to erupt into a scream or descend into an emotional quaver, helped define the rock sound of the 1990s. His prowess was on full display last night, from the primal explosions of "Spoonman" and "Jesus Christ Pose" from his Soundgarden days to the poignant acoustic renderings of "Finally Forever" and "Can't Change Me" (one of my favorite Cornell-sung songs).

In fact, for someone who recently went through an acrimonious public breakup with his Audioslave bandmates (who have since returned to their original outfit, Rage Against the Machine), there were very few moments in the evening that felt like he was trying to assert any kind of individual agenda. Cornell did play the Audioslave song "Be Yourself," which has been interpreted as a put-down to his former bandmates. And, after completing "Say Hello 2 Heaven" from Temple of the Dog, his collaboration with members of Pearl Jam to honor their late friend and Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, Cornell expressed how wrong it was that he has been touring for the last 17 years but hasn't been able to play that song.

But, these moments of pique were isolated incidents. Cornell moved smoothly between the aggressive Soundgarden anthems, the introspective and moody Audioslave songs, and his more singer-songwritery solo material. The night did not feel like a show from a singer with two albums (that's how many solo CDs Cornell has released), but rather a retrospective of an artist's long career. The fact that the career spans two bands, solo material and a side project seemed besides the point.

Cornell is at a critical juncture in his career, in his early 40s and without either of the bands that carried him to fame and fortune. Some singers become instant oldies acts, trading on their past successes while giving up any relevance and currency as an artist. Others go the other direction, dropping out of the mainstream industry and following their artistic muses, happy to exist on the fringes. Few have been able to pull off the delicate balancing act that Cornell is attempting, embracing his past while moving to the future.

With several songs from "Carry On," this was not a straight oldies show, and the new material is as strong, if different, from his earlier catalogue. At the same time, Cornell showed respect and affection for the songs that made his career. Based on last night's performance, it looks like Cornell has a chance to pull it off. His balancing act was so good, even the East German judge would have to give him high marks.

The opening act was Juliette and the Licks. While it's doubtful you've heard of this band, you probably know the lead singer, actress Juliette Lewis. She has made a career of playing off-beat or downright crazy characters, and nothing about her performance last night will affect her typecasting. Fronting a generic four-piece L.A. punk band, Lewis basically had a 30-minute seizure on the stage, jumping about, kicking the air and crawling and rolling around, all with a tenuous relationship to the music that was going on behind her. Dressed in a two-feather Native American headpiece, a black tank top, black spandex pants, black stiletto boots, and black knee pads that looked like she stole them from Patrick Ewing, and screaming more than singing the bland songs, Juliette and the Licks was the living incarnation of the term "vanity project." I somehow managed to avoid Keanu Reeves's Dogstar and Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot of Grunt. I wish I could have kept my record spotless with Juliette and the Licks. No such luck.

Set List
Chris Cornell
Beacon Theater, New York City
July 31, 2007

Let Me Drown
Show Me How To Live
No Such Thing
Arms Around Your Love
Be Yourself
Burden In My Hand
What You Are
Rusty Cage
Can't Change Me (solo acoustic)
Finally Forever (solo acoustic)
I Am The Highway (solo acoustic)
Like A Stone (solo acoustic)
Doesn't Remind Me (1/2 solo acoustic)
Ty Cobb
Say Hello 2 Heaven
Jesus Christ Pose
Seasons (with a bit of In My Time Of Dying)
Wave Goodbye
Black Hole Sun
Slaves And Bulldozers