BEING THERE: Soundgarden @ The Tower

Chris Cornell, Tower Theater, last night by HOWARD GAINES

BY JOE PAONE The Tower Theater’s iconic marquee read “SOUNDGARDEN SOLD OUT.”  The WMMR Fun Times Party Van was out front. Shiny tractor trailers stretched as far as the eye could see. Middle-aged superfan rock dudes excitedly chattered about the latest projects from people like “Tom” (Morello). Silver-haired middle managers and salespeople roamed the venue with their uncomfortable-looking wives. Some people looked like they hadn’t been to a rock show since Eric Lindros captained the Flyers. And then there were the kids who weren’t even born during the height of grunge, but who were geeked up to see these mysterious rock gods from yesteryear in the flesh.

Unlike its grunge-era peers Nirvana or Pearl Jam, Soundgarden never really STOOD for anything besides bringing the rock. While Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were ultra-serious about advancing all kinds of causes, Soundgarden toured basketball arenas opening for Guns ‘N Roses. (Anyone remember the ArenaVision virtual rape of countless women at the Spectrum during that tour? The camera fixed its gaze on woman after woman and stayed on each one until she lifted her top to satisfy the savage crowd, while G ‘n R spent hours doing who knows what before they took the stage. Imagine Cobain or Vedder putting up with *that*.)

Soundgarden has always known where its bread is buttered: the arena-rock fan. That seemed to be the goal all along – sell a lot of records, rock a lot of asses, conquer the world. And as more or less a perfect synthesis of Black Sabbath’s monolithic riffmastery and Led Zeppelin’s booty-shaking swagger, there’s nothing wrong with such a band having serious ambitions, after all.

And so here they were, emerging from the mists of time to play a sold-out large-theater gig where ticket prices hovered around $60. The expense-account crowd was in full force. No one here was goin’ hungrrrrrrraeeee, goin HUNGRYYYYYY-AAAAAAY.

So was this show worth the hefty ticket price? Yes, with reservations.

They played the majority of their “hits,” as it were (there was once a world where songs like “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Spoonman” were major radio-friendly unit-shifters). The crowd dug the familiar tunes only slightly more than the band’s new stuff, which didn’t sound out of place at all. In a nod to the new century, one song had singing but no one in the band was actually singing.

Singer Chris Cornell’s voice actually sounded pretty good (albeit heavily processed) when compared with the uncomfortably strained shrieking I’ve heard in earlier performances during this reunion. The shirt stayed on. He didn’t climb on top of speakers or stage-dive. But he was fit and in good spirits, even goofily taking the time to advocate for the legalization of weeeeeed, much to the crowd’s delight. One weird thing about Cornell is that it always looks like he just learned how to play guitar, even though he’s actually doing some cool and important stuff within some of the songs.

Kim Thayil, the world’s most reluctant guitar god, played well, but I have a small complaint. I was disappointed that his guitar lacked definition as the show progressed. His surprisingly small rig simply didn’t have the bottom-end weight that a band with Sabbathy riffs should have. When I go to a Soundgarden show, I want to be overwhelmed by those fantastically monolithic, repetitive riffs. I want to feel them in my chest. Why are all those tractor trailers out there anyway? Did we forget to pack the balllllllls? Anyway, maybe I’m deaf, who knows.

Ben Shepherd pwned on the bass, while adding some charisma to an act that’s always been somewhat lacking in that area. And I got the impression that this reunion means the most to drummer Matt Cameron, who clearly is leading the band these days and did an expectedly solid job on the skins/traps/um, drums.

Overall impression: If you wanted to go see Soundgarden play for a couple hours, you’d be served well by going to see Soundgarden play for a couple hours. Other than massive stacks of money, why does Soundgarden exist, especially after years of Cornell awkwardly distancing himself from the very idea of the band? Why ask why? Just enjoy a professional rock band playing a professional rock show. The songs sound good, and that’s all that really matters. Right? Right. The boys all looked a little tuckered out during the encore. But they definitely delivered the goods. On to the next conquest, rock warriors. Gen X needs you out there on that wall.