By Brian Ives
“The year we released this album was the last time the Rangers won the Stanley Cup!” Chris Cornell pointed this statistic out from the stage of New York City’s Webster Hall, where he and Soundgarden rolled through their greatest album, 1994’s Superunkown, from start to finish, on the eve of the release of a deluxe 20th anniversary edition of the album.
The crowd, of course, went wild. Webster Hall is just two miles from Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers play their home games. But the moment was telling: it would have been unlikely that Cornell and Soundgarden would have made many NHL references back in ’94 when they released their tour de force. Superunknown was quite obviously a more accessible album than their earlier, more abrasive material, but like most of their peers, Soundgarden seemed ambivalent about being accepted by the mainstream.
Talking hockey would not have been cool in the indie punk underground where they got their start, and would have been a nod to the fact that more of their fans were familiar with Mark Messier than Mark Arm. Plus, Cornell wasn’t quite as big on onstage banter back then, and rarely joked. In contrast, at the end of the album performance last night, he announced, “We have assumed control of the federation and stuff,” a glib reference to the end of side one of Rush’s epic 2112.
But some things don’t change. In 1994, Webster Hall would have seemed impossibly small for a Soundgarden show, and that was still the case two decades later. If there was a bit less moshing than a show from back then would have inspired, the crowd were easily as loud and enthused about being there. It’s hard to imagine that the band would have agreed to doing a club show sponsored by Citibank bank then, as last night’s was. It’s also difficult to cling to the mores of that time and be mad at them all these years later for taking the gig.
Also unchanged over the decades: the power of this band, and the durability of their ’94 opus. In two decades, Cornell looks almost as ageless as Pharrell, and his voice is still incredible. He sounded terrifying on “Rusty Cage” (one of two songs from 1991’s Badmotorfinger that made up the encore) but as soulful as ever on the quieter tunes, like “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell on Black Days,” “The Day I Tried To Live” and “Like Suicide.” Kim Thayil, mostly retired between the band’s 1997 breakup and their 2010 reactivation, sounded fearsome and furious, his Nuclear Assault t-shirt a reminder of his roots, which always lay far from the pop charts.
Towards the end of the Soundgarden’s first era, bassist Ben Shepherd made his feelings about large audiences known by keeping his back to them. Last night, his pedal setup was pointing at the side of the stage, as if to say that he’s now 25% more OK with facing large crowds now than he was back then. One of the highlights of the night was “Half,” which Shepherd wrote, sang and played guitar on. As Cornell recently told Radio.com in an interview, “It was one of my favorites. I remember getting into a discussion with Ben, where I had to convince him to sing it.” Last night the band transformed the song from it’s original form as a Eastern-sounding dirge to a doom metal instrumental — the furthest they took any song from its original arrangement. Shepherd didn’t sing, but Cornell did join in, thrashing away on his guitar. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the stoic bass player may have grinned.
At the end of the night, they followed the Superunknown performance with “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage,” with Cornell announcing “The next time we play here, we’re gonna do King Animal,” their unnecessarily great 2012 reunion LP. More than boasting, it was a reminder that, even if Soundgarden were looking back for one night, they’re not ready to rest on their catalog just yet.
All photos by Maria Ives for Radio.com.
Soundgarden @ Webster Hall setlist:
Let Me Drown
Fell on Black Days
Black Hole Sun
The Day I Tried to Live
4th of July