It’s a fair bet Chris Cornell would’ve played the Lakewood Civic on November 3rd even if there never was a Soundgarden. The guy oozes hits, crafting one memorable song after another like a woodcarver with a chisel and plane, blowing away the sawdust before nonchalantly moving on to the next work. Soundgarden just happened to be the first major vehicle to benefit from his generous muse.
Cornell, 49, rose to fame fronting the Seattle band in the ‘90s, brusquely shoving grunge anthems like “Outshined,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” and “Spoonman” into the public consciousness with his dynamic vocals and gritty guitar magic. He collaborated with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello in Audioslave on a handful of acclaimed discs when Soundgarden split, then ventured on his own at the turn of the century.
Cornell’s well-regarded solo efforts and frequent soundtrack contributions have assured him a constant place in spotlight since the dissolution of his big bands. 2011’s excellent live project, Songbook, found the singer rendering some of his best tunes (and a few surprise covers) in a live acoustic setting before he regrouped with Kim Thayil and company in Soundgarden for 2012’s King Animal.
But Cornell’s Sunday night appearance in Lakewood marked a return to his glorified one-man coffeehouse gigs: No drummer, no bassist, no intermission, and no pee breaks. Equipped with only six guitars, a barstool, and his inimitable pipes, the Jet City icon offered a dazzling two-hour set that made a splendid sequel to his stripped-down marathon at the high school two years back.
Oh, and Cornell spun some vinyl, too.
“Lakewood…is this a suburb of Cleveland?” asked the singer early on.
Cornell revealed himself a history buff, jokingly calling on someone from the Chamber of Commerce to lay out the details. Looking relaxed in jeans and a charcoal grey sweater over a white tee, the shaggy-haired singer ruminated and quipped between songs and acknowledged individual fans hollering requests and brandishing “Can I Sing With You?” signage.
“Compared to places like this, Seattle and L.A. are about twenty minutes old,” he joked. “Everything west of St. Louis is practically new.”
Cornell’s first few tunes saw him indulge his more serious side, however, with the new “Cleaning My Gun” buttressing nicely against Euphoria Morning’s “Cant Change Me.” Chris strolled the stage with microphone in hand for “Silence the Voices” after dropping the needle on his own backing track,” then took up guitar again an elegiac “Scar on the Sky.”
He dedicated the Audioslave cut “Dandelion” to his daughter, who wasn’t yet born when he wrote it. “She was still in my wife’s stomach,” he recalled.
“Actually, it wasn’t her stomach,” he considered. “She didn’t eat the baby. It was in her womb, where babies belong.”
Other Audioslave gems like “Original Fire” and “#1 Zero” had Cornell remembering his hungry days trying to carve out an identity with Soundgarden in pre-grunge Seattle. “All Night Thing” was the first of many numbers from Chris’ one-off project with Temple of the Dog.
Recent Soundgarden single “Halfway There” received a respectful dressing-down, while “Fell On Black Days” and “The Day I Tried to Live” harkened to the quartet’s Superunknown glory. Cornell saluted his rock and roll heroes in Led Zeppelin with a poignant take on “Thank You.”
Cornell paid homaged anew to departed friend Andrew “Andy” Wood, mashing the Mother Love Bone chestnut “Man of Golden Words” (from that band’s sole official album, 1990’s Apple) a couple verses from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” “Wooden Jesus” and “Call Me a Dog” drew from the Temple of the Dog disc, as did “Hunger Strike,” which found opener Bhi Bhiman coming out to sub for Eddie Vedder on guitar and vocals.
Cueing up another record on the turntable, Cornell did the Sinatra thing again for “When I’m Down”—and expressed gratitude to Russian musician Natasha Schneider, who played piano on the Euphoria Morning ballad before passing away in 2008. Fetching another of his alternately-tuned guitars, Chris then played the chord progression for U2’s “One”—but sang the verses from the similarly-named Metallica song. Oddly, the experiment worked, exposing the metal band’s head-banging classic as the earnest prayer it is.
“Bend in the Road” and “Like a Stone” were sandwiched between stellar takes on The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and “Oh! Darling.” Cornell huffed a harmonica on the former tune, doing a fair Dylan impersonation—and both Fab Four cuts were near showstoppers, as Chris demonstrated his six-string agility on the orchestral bits while stretching his voice to its uppermost registers.
The mostly 30 and 40-somethings in the sellout crowd were enraptured, even if Cornell’s marathon risked becoming too much of a good thing. Planted in cushy theater seats throughout the show, the audience was patient and quiet, affording Chris the courtesy of a superstar minstrel who just happened to be gracing their living room. Alcohol wasn’t sold—school property, after all—and few got up for restroom respite, minimizing the interruptions.
Yet Cornell—who somehow made this troubadour thing look so easy—took the stage again for an earnest “Be Yourself” (from Audioslave’s sophomore CD Out of Exile) and haunting “Black Hole Sun” (another winner from Superunknown) before wrapping with “Blow Up the Outside World.” Using the effects pedals at his feet, Cornell set the chord progression on repeat, parked his guitar, then dialed up some ethereal sounds and distorted feedback, all of which coalesced and looped as the headliner waved goodbye and strode for the curtains.
The Sri Lankan-born Bhiman (who pronounced and spelled his name for the curious) capitalized on his opening set, zinging the captive crowd through seven esoteric numbers showcasing his voice—and his wit. “Equal in My Tea” likened an imaginary lover to the sweeter in his Earl Grey. “Crime of Passion” foretold the grisly murders perpetrated by an eccentric taxi driver who took Bhiman’s fare one day.
The bearded, bespectacled Bhiman looked like a physics professor but has clearly been honing his guitar chops over the years. He said he “geeked out” meeting Cornell when Soundgarden appeared on Jules Holland’s music program a few years back and leapt when Chris offered an opening slot. Both he and Cornell said laid-back Lakewood was a stark contrast to the drunken revelers in Madison on Saturday.
“Kimchee Line,” “You Gotta Move,” and “Guttersnipe” were other winners, and Bhiman’s tune about an Indian boy growing up in space (admittedly modeled on Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) drew big laughs. In lieu of a sing-along, Bhiman enticed Lakewood ticket-holders into whistling the keyboard riff on his acoustic version of Dire Straits’ feel-good hit “Walk of Life.”