In the ’90s, if the idea was suggested that Soundgarden would still be around in two decades, playing a posh casino in Atlantic City for fans paying $85 a pop, even fans would have found it hard to believe.
They hail from an era and a scene where rock stardom was frowned upon, as was sentimentality. And casino performances carried the stigma of being Elvis’ last stop on the road to irrelevance.
So, in 2013, Soundgarden find themselves in a strange position: the band members (and many of their fans) are in their mid-40s to early-50s. A lot has changed over the years, both for the band and for casinos, whose bookings have gotten considerably hipper in recent decades.
But Soundgarden never really played it safe, anyway: they always forged their own path, other bands followed. Their fans have always respected and rewarded them for that. Along with the surviving bands from the Seattle scene (notably Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains) those fans have stuck with them, even after the mainstream press turned their attention from the so-called grunge scene.
That brings us to Atlantic City’s Borgata, where Soundgarden played on Friday (May 3). It’s odd to walk into a room where Soundgarden is scheduled to perform and notice, first thing, the carpet on the floor. Then, the chandeliers. Would cocktail waitresses fan through the crowd during the show?
Happily, no: ceiling and floor dressing aside, the band played with the intensity they displayed during the ’90s. One might even argue that they are better now: singer Chris Cornell seems to have better control of his voice in 2013 than he did in 1993. Bassist Ben Shepherd, who often played with his back to the audience and a gargantuan chip on his shoulder back then, now seems to appreciate being in a band with longevity. Guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron look and sound almost exactly as they did two decades ago (Cameron has stayed on the road for much of Soundgarden’s hiatus, which lasted from 1997-2010, as a member of Pearl Jam).
Over the course of two hours, they touched on all phases of their career, from earliest single “Hunted Down” to their latest album, King Animal. Their 120 Minutes/Headbanger’s Ball era classics (“Spoonman,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Let Me Drown,” “Burden In My Hand”) predictably got huge reactions. But their lesser known songs from that era (“Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” “Room A Thousand Years Wide,” the fan-requested “Drawing Flies”) and their material from their indie label era (“Hunted Down,” “Flower”) also received a great response.
To be sure, Soundgarden’s audience has shrunken since the ’90s, but the band still commands a sizable, if fervent, following.
The band played six new songs: “By Crooked Steps,” “Taree,” “Been Away Too Long,” “Non-State Actor,” “A Thousand Days Before” and closing with “Rowing.”
While many of their new songs would have fit comfortably on classic albums like Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down On The Upside, the band shows quite a bit of growth on “Rowing,” a song where Cornell samples and loops his own voice (a trick he may have learned from Timbaland, who produced his much-maligned latest solo album, Scream). The song is about moving on through life: “Moving is Breathing and breathing is life,stopping is dying, you’ll be alright.” It’s not a song or a lyric that would have come from this camp in their younger days.
Early in the set, Cornell said to the audience, “I hope this is fun for you, it’s definitely fun for us!” Fun? It was another reminder of how the band has changed: “fun” wasn’t mentioned often in relation to Soundgarden back then. While the band performed their classic “Black Hole Sun,” Cornell sings, “In my youth I pray to keep.” In Soundgarden’s case, they’re fortunate to have all the power they had in their youth, plus a bit of extra wisdom and perspective.