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Soundgarden live!

Photo by Timothy Hiatt

Maneuvering through the crumbling corridors of the Riviera Theatre moments before a show begins, one gains a fair perspective of how the evening may pan out. The tone of the crowd can be measured by myriad factors: average age, t-shirt color schemes, impeccably sculpted or intentionally careless hair styles, early signs of intoxication minutes after doors open, visible levels of angst or emotional distress looking to be resolved through moshing and/or crying – all of which can make or break a gig’s ambiance.

Soundgarden fans were proving to be very promising on the second night (Jan. 30) of the band’s Chicago jaunt. Even though they had just played 24 hours prior, people marched through the beer-soaked hallways from every direction desperately trying to find an optimal spot in a crowd so dense the sold-out venue seemed well over-capacity. The Riv’s security staff fought a constant battle trying to maintain a clear path as eager fans blocked staircases and exit rows.

The temperature in the room quickly rose and everyone sprung to their feet as Soundgarden inertly took the stage playing the first chords of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” from 1991’s Badmotorfinger. There was no opening act, just a resounding blow to the ears from guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd‘s demented riffs and perfectly polished equilibrium. Their lengthy hiatus aside, it was clear these guys have been playing together for decades.

Chris Cornell hasn’t aged – in voice, rhythm guitar technique, physique, or even stage presence. He remains among the most distinctive vocalists of his generation as his trademark howl activated tripwires of nostalgia around the room. Cornell roamed the Riviera stage with introverted intensity, occasionally enticing the audience, but remaining very much focused on his craft. The band continued the night with crowd pleasers “Spoonman” and “Jesus Christ Pose,” heavily featuring the brilliant percussion work of Matt Cameron.

Soundgarden is a band that rode the last great wave of true guitar worship in the grunge era – clinging to the Aqua Net-stained shrapnel leftover from the hair metal wreckage. They are of a more traditional time where complicated riffs and solos were not for ornamentation, but rather just as dominant as vocal melody. Thayil’s guitar remains the backbone of the band’s sound – constantly mixing intricate mathematical licks and dominating riffs reminiscent of alternative radio’s glory days.

Cornell proclaimed his Chicago love, referring to the city as the band’s “home away from home” while introducing new track “Been Away Too Long” from their latest album King Animal. Their spinning logo overhead slowly disappeared to reveal a woodsy snow-covered backdrop, transitioning the room from the old into the new. Soundgarden’s latest material isn’t much of a departure from their vast body of work, but it was clear their devoted audience wasn’t there expecting experimentation. Other recent tracks such as “Attrition” and “Halfway There” came across as live works in progress – leaving a dull impression compared to the rest of the set’s otherwise well-paced selections.

As any show featuring a band of this reputation and stature, the magic of the night largely belonged to tracks past. 1994’s Superunknown provided much of the evening’s heavy hitters with impressive renditions of “Fell On Black Days,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” and “Mailman” – showcasing Thayil in wailing splendor.

Standing among the endless sprawl of yowling spectators, it was nearly impossible to ignore the momentous feel of the event. Soundgarden’s last Chicago visit (prior to the previous night) was headlining Lollapalooza in Grant Park, and before that they filled countless arenas and festivals over the years. To see them in a theater setting was somewhat electric – a feeling plastered on the faces of everyone in attendance.

Soundgarden bid adieu with another track from Badmotorfinger, the punishing “Slaves & Bulldozers.” Every man turned it up to 11 and unleashed their fury – Cornell’s controlled screams shook the theater’s flaking plaster as Cameron trounced his kit into oblivion. The cacophony screeched to a halt, funneling down to an aching reverb as the band members casually left the stage one by one. Thayil stayed behind, swigging his beer as if enjoying a backyard barbeque, soaking it all in before following his bandmates. Like the Riviera itself, Soundgarden may appear tattered and worn with its heyday in hindsight, but they’re still capable of hosting a memorable occasion.

— Gina Pantone-Urwin

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