Grunge icons Soundgarden have returned to the stage following a drawn-out 13-year hiatus. Touring on new music, "King Animal," they rolled into Eagle's Ballroom at The Rave in Milwaukee on Feb. 1, 2013. The sold-out show offered rabid fans a lengthy set with no opening act.
The current tour is a treat for the Knights of the Soundtable, many of whom traveled great distances in 2011 to Lollapalooza and the Voodoo Experience to pack it in with tens of thousands of festival attendees. Instead, on this tour, the concerts have been limited to smaller, historic venues for a sonically superior and more intimate show.
Given a set-time that hovers between two and two-and-a-half hours, they mixed in as many deep cuts as hit singles. A handful of songs, "Spoonman," "Outshined," "Rusty Cage," "Jesus Christ Pose" and "Blow Up the Outside World" are the only tunes that are virtually guaranteed each night, the other twenty-plus songs can be anything from their exhaustive catalog.
Not needing to rely on gimmicks, they performed on a vast stage with Matt Cameron's drum riser a mere two-feet off the ground. A couple pairings of amp stacks were spread along the back of the stage, while a large screen was used as a backdrop. Videos were projected for each song to adjust the mood. The videos and various light sequences were the only effects, Soundgarden chose to cast their image through their music, though cast might be an understatement.
Cameron controlled the flow. His technically challenging drum signatures set the tone while Ben Shepherd matched Cameron's every move. Shepherd is a beast, his bass slung just above his knee while he slapped, stroked and hammered a rhythm that droned into every crevice of the Eagle's Ballroom. The pair produced an aural sludge that completely typified what is Soundgarden.
Enter Kim Thayil. His guitar techniques, signature riffs and down tuned play are instantly recognizable, tying together Cameron and Shepherd into an in-your-face assault. Wearing a black skull cap that shaded his brow, his fingers deftly maneuvered across his fretboard while he coaxed melodies that laid the foundation for Chris Cornell's powerful voice. Cornell frequently had a guitar in his hands as well, adding to Soundgarden's already immense depth.
"Been Away Too Long," the catchy lead single from "King Animal," seemed an appropriate way to get the show started. Though their set did emphasize the new album, touching upon roughly half of their new material, they also revisited each of their studio efforts, including five from "Louder than Love" and another handful from their EPs.
Somehow they have maintained a tight connection to their past on "Animal." It's fresh but remains unadulterated, vintage Soundgarden. Cornell's vocals shine and seem to have evolved into a deeper maturity from the "Superunknown" days.
That's not to say Cornell can no longer handle the post-punk vocals from "Screaming Life." Their performance of "Hunted Down" was nothing short of spectacular, down to Cornell wearing a t-shirt with the song title spelled out that was handed to him from a fan near the front row. He wore the shirt for a number of songs, called out the fan and then handed him the shirt after the song. It was handed back with a Sharpie and Cornell stopped to sign while Shepherd diddled on his bass. Cameron left his kit, tapping his wrist jokingly as an indication that they were holding up the show and then signed as well. Another attribute of the intimate nature of these shows.
During the Acoustic Songbook tour, Cornell experimented with loops to add depth to a few songs as a one-man show. He used the same technique during "Rowing," looping the chorus while he and Thayil jammed together into a richly textured melody while adding a few Cornell-on-Cornell screams for effect. Shepherd's timely rhythm was the difference between chaos and a structured song.
Soundgarden temporarily left the stage as the show was approaching the two-hour mark. They had just knocked out fan favorite "Rusty Cage," with emphasis on heavy. They returned for an encore set that commenced with "Black Hole Sun" followed by "Let Me Drown."
Just to ensure to the crowd that they haven't lost a step in the last 25 years, they went back to "Ultramega OK" for "Flower." Soundgarden capped off the night with an explosively solid "Beyond the Wheel." From Thayil's opening riff to Cornell's gut-wrenching screams, they expunged any doubts that Soundgarden remain "King" of their empire.
Been Away Too Long
Jesus Christ Pose
By Crooked Steps
Get on the Snake
Blow Up the Outside World
Fell on Black Days
Live to Rise
Tighter & Tighter
Big Dumb Sex
Hands All Over
Bones of Birds
Black Hole Sun
Let Me Drown
Beyond the Wheel