Monday, July 18, 2011

Soundgarden Returns With A Sonic Bloom -- Concert Review

Photo Credit: Eric Freitag from July 6, 2011 show in Connecticut
Concert Review

with Mars Volta
July 16, 2011
UIC Pavilion, Chicago

By almost all measures, Soundgarden is a band that has enjoyed estimable critical and commercial success.

But although evidence of the Seattle foursome's stature as one of the best bands of the 1990s--and a pretty big one at that--was readily apparent during a rock solid, hit-filled show on Saturday night in Chicago, I was reminded again that in a way, Soundgarden has often found itself stuck on the doorstep of mega-sized super-stardom.

This is in no way a knock on the show itself, in which the band sounded every bit as good as I could have hoped, 15 years since they last toured. (Their reunion officially began last year, when they performed at Lollapalooza and a few other gigs.)

Yet it was surprising that a band whose legacy--at least in my mind--looms tremendously large, failed to sell out the 9,000-seat Pavilion, the smallest of the Chicago area's concert arenas (behind the United Center, Allstate Arena and Sears Center).

I was reminded that in 1996, when it felt to me that the band was poised for true world-domination--with their stellar Down on the Upside album following up the multi-platinum success of Superunknown--I had seen Soundgarden not at the UC or Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena) but the Aragon.

Although they were the first "grunge" band signed to a major label and according to, "most critics expected Soundgarden to be the band that broke down the doors for alternative rock, not Nirvana," their initial success behind 1991's Badmotorfinger album was dwarfed by that of Seattle-brethren Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Heck, even when they reunited for the Sunday-night, festival-closing slot at Lollapalooza last year, according to friends who attended, Soundgarden was significantly outdrawn by Arcade Fire, who was playing opposite them. And Arcade Fire went on to sell out 3 nights at the Pavilion this April (including a @@@@@ show I caught).

Anyway, all of this means nothing except that Soundgarden has never been quite as popular as they should've been and seemingly remain that way. And thus, thousands of alternative rock fans--many of them likely at the Pitchfork festival also in Chicago this weekend--missed one of the best shows of 2011 by one of the best bands the genre has ever produced.

Perhaps Soundgarden is a bit too heavy, even heavy metal, for the type of mainstream success they continue to merit, but boy did they sound good. Maybe Chris Cornell, a.k.a. the Prince of Wails, didn't quite hit all the high notes with the oomph he once did, and bassist Ben Shepherd is looking a little puffy, but along with Chicago area native Kim Thayil on lead guitar and Matt Cameron--now also a member of Pearl Jam--on drums, the band was incredibly powerful and tight as they ran through the setlist shown below.

The whole show was pretty much a highlight, even songs with which I was unfamiliar, but "Spoonman" rocked early--as shown in the video below--and I was really glad the band pulled out "Pretty Noose," which they had omitted on most previous tour stops.

Although it will be nice when the band releases new music next year rather than simply mining their past glories, this was what a rock concert should be. No need for videos or frills, just a group of great musicians who take their craft seriously and--without changing a whole lot all these years down the road--continue to make their Soundgarden grow with tremendous power and panache.

Opening act Mars Volta demonstrated a powerful sound of their own, but were a bit hard to appreciate given the density of their approach. Although I own one of their albums, what I heard sounded largely unfamiliar and though there was readily apparent quality, much of it was lost on me.

Soundgarden Setlist, July 16, 2011, Chicago:

Searching With My Good Eye Closed
Room a Thousand Years Wide
Jesus Christ Pose
Blow Up the Outside World
The Day I Tried to Live
My Wave
Fell on Black Days
Ugly Truth
Hunted Down
Rusty Cage
Black Hole Sun
Burden in My Hand
Pretty Noose
4th of July
Beyond the Wheel

Nothing To Say
Like Suicide
Slaves & Bulldozers

(A YouTube clip of Spoonman from Saturday night in Chicago)


Anonymous said...

I was at that show on Saturday and completley agree it rocked. It was fantastic and they sounded as good as ever and the sound was amazing. I am very picky with shows now and this was well worth it. I agree the opening act was lost on thanks. Long live Soundgarden

Anonymous said...

It is hard to believe it has been 15+ years since I last saw them at the Aragon. Soundgarden fans, like me, have a very unique interest in their depth and "Dark Beauty". We do not particularly care for the bands from that era that went "Pop" and had all the commercial success. I cannot describe the experience of Cornell’s vocals with that collective sound they create when standing 20 feet from them. It was amazing. It was too bad the mosh was restricted. I can’t wait until they return. It was cool to hear that Kim went to UIC. Does anyone know what years he attended there?
Good luck to The Mars Volta. There is talent there, but it’s not for me.