The good ones, at least.
Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell performed a sold-out show at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Sunday night, hitting high notes from throughout his career.
The 27-song nostalgic-yet-varied set included Soundgarden and Audioslave favorites, solo cuts, a number of covers and even a heaping of offerings from the 1991 self-titled Temple of the Dog project.
During the nearly two-and-a-hour performance, Cornell was almost exclusively alone on stage with a rotating selection of amplified acoustic guitars. He deviated from that setup only sparingly. The result turned into a haunting, beautiful, creative night of music perfectly suited for the venue.
Highlights included Soundgarden hits such as "Fell on Black Days," after which Cornell asked the audience if "that was from" the 1994 mega-hit album "Superunknown, right?" The audience assured him he was correct, before easing into "Burden in My Hand" from 1996's Down on the Upside.
Audioslave tracks in many ways sounded better than the album versions. The band that Cornell formed with members of Rage Against the Machine never equaled the sum of its parts, but Cornell gave songs such as "Like a Stone" an added richness.
Cornell played a selection of solo songs as well, from the moving "Ground Zero" and the well-received "Sweet Euphoria." And the Temple of the Dog tracks, such as "Say Hello 2 Heaven," enjoyed a special level of sublimity in the solo acoustic setting.
It might have been Cornell's choices of covers that intrigued the most, including Led Zeppelin's "Thank You," the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," and the musician's well-known take on Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean." An electrified and surprising rendition on Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" was well done, and admittedly self-indulgent.
The audience behaved itself for the first half of the concert, until fans began shouting out requests, including the required "Freebird" jokester. But Cornell seemed to roll with it, saying "It's like a spelling contest and I'm the only contestant, and it's music."
Something that became evident during the performance was just how overlooked Cornell's talents might be. The 46-year-old carried the show ably, and his strong, distinctive voice gave no signs of wear.
But during an evening that featured such a creative, eclectic array of music spanning two decades of rock, the showstoppers came during the encore. Cornell played a moving version of the Temple of the Dog classic "Hunger Strike," and followed that up with Soundgarden's best known song, "Black Hole Sun."
In the never-ending battle between moving forward and looking back, nostalgia once again won out in the end.
Show Review: Chris Cornell @ Sixth & I
Chris Cornell has a whole lot of soul. Sunday night he played an outstanding, sold-out solo show to about 800 very lucky fans at the historic Sixth & I Synagogue in DC.
Once inside I headed upstairs to the balcony for what proved to be perfect seats, right above the stage. I had never been to this venue before, and it is a beautiful space; not too big, with pew seating, colorful stained-glass windows, and soft, intimate lighting. It was the perfect setting for what was to be a very special evening.
An hour later, right at 8 o’clock, opening act William Elliott Whitmore came onstage, banjo in hand. It takes guts to get up onstage by yourself in front of a sold-out audience of people who mostly haven’t heard of you, and he did so gracefully. From Lee County, Iowa, his style sounded southern-cooked: a mix of spiritual, delta blues, and straightforward countrified acoustic rock. For some songs he played kick drum as well as either banjo or acoustic guitar. He seemed pretty comfortable and confident, and played a strong half-hour set.
The stage setup was sparse and cozy – an oriental carpet covered the floor, a tall chair stood in the middle, two racks holding seven guitars flanked the stage as well as a few amps. The two things that stood out as unusual were a red, old-style telephone on a stool next to the chair, and a turntable on the side of the stage. Curious, very curious.
Chris Cornell took the stage right on schedule at 9pm to an explosion of cheers. The audience was finally able to voice the excitement that had been percolating through the room for the past two hours. Tall, lean, and dangerously handsome as ever, his hair falling in curls down to his shoulders, the only sign that he had aged at all in the past twenty years was the sharper edges of his face, a little harder than in the ’90s heyday of Soundgarden.
He started off his set with the song “Scar on the Sky” off of his second solo album, Carry On. “Ground Zero” from his third solo album Scream and “Can’t Change Me” off of his debut Euphoria Morning followed. The first real high point of the night for me came four songs into the set, when he sang a soul-grabbing rendition of the Temple of the Dog song “Call Me A Dog.” Here his voice wailed, reaching gut-wrenching high notes, dragging the listeners to the edge of their seats, hanging on his every note.
Cornell seemed right at home onstage. It was as if he had let us, the audience, into his living room for a private concert. Of playing, he said “I’m very lucky to be able to do this as my job.” The next highlights came from the Soundgarden catalogue. He played a dark, brooding version of “Fell on Black Days” followed by, as he put it, “a traditional ‘I shot my woman down’ song,” the soulful ”Burden in My Hand.”
Ten songs into the set Cornell traded his acoustic guitar for an electric, and did a cool, dark cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.” Here he played with pedals, creating a loop of rhythmic guitar, and then layering atmospheric wails and feedback on top. After the song he laughed and joked about rock music being very self-indulgent by nature.
At this point in the show the role of the lone turntable was finally revealed: Cornell explained that nowadays a lot of artists bring laptops onstage and play along with pre-recorded tracks, but that that wasn’t quite his speed. He wanted to play a song that had a piano part (written/played by Natasha Shneider, of the band Eleven, who collaborated with Cornell for his debut solo album) so he decided to have a record pressed of the piano part, so he could sing along to the record (old school cool!). So he went over to the record player, removed the record from its sleeve, and carefully placed the needle down. The slow, jazzy piano rang out warmly from the record player as he crossed the stage back to the mic. The track, “When I’m Down,” off of Euphoria Morning, is as close as Cornell gets to a torch song, and he soulfully belted it out, creating a spiritual experience in the sacred space of the room.
Next, back on guitar, he delivered a couple more songs off his debut album. First, upon a shouted request from the audience, came the dark, lovely “Sweet Euphoria.” That was followed by the technically challenging “Preaching the End of the World.” Cornell brought up the difficult nature of the song before playing it, saying “it has 27 chords!” and to bear with him while he attempted it. There were a few pauses, remembering which chord came next, but he soldiered on, with the audience encouraging him the whole time.
The following song was a gem – “Seasons” off of the groundbreaking soundtrack of the 1992 movie Singles. It’s hard to explain the feeling of hearing a song that you have loved for almost twenty years performed live. I remember getting this soundtrack when I was in middle school (on tape and CD), and I listened to this track so much that eventually it wouldn’t play through anymore, it just skipped. The guitar on this song is almost hypnotic, and Cornell delivered a delicate, soulful, fulfilling rendition.
A couple of surprises came a few songs later, when he returned to Temple of the Dog for “All Night Thing” and the emotionally charged “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” Cornell wrote “Say Hello 2 Heaven” as a tribute to his roommate, Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, after Wood died of a heroin overdose. Chris Cornell has a singular voice, and here his famous sky-high wailing was at its finest. It gave me chills.
He finished his main set with the dark, beautiful “Like Suicide,” two Audioslave songs – the anthemic “Like A Stone” and “Doesn’t Remind Me,” and a moody cover of The Beatles’ song “Ticket To Ride.” The audience wouldn’t let him stay away, wildly applauding, and he returned shortly to do a five-song encore. Here he pleased his more recent fans and any Michael Jackson fans with his cover of “Billie Jean.” He surprised the whole audience when he acquiesced to another shouted request and played a beautiful version of the Temple of the Dog hit “Hunger Strike.” Cornell ended the special evening with a quiet, haunting “Black Hole Sun,” and finally another nod to his musical forefathers with John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
We never did find out why that telephone was on stage.