Twenty-five years ago, it would have been hard to imagine. Back then, Chris Cornell was known only as the frontman of up-and-coming Seattle band Soundgarden, an abrasive and uncompromising group who seemingly detested any music that was remotely commercial. He was a charismatic frontman, but had little rapport with the audience, appearing to be uncomfortable with any level of fame at all. He seemed like the kind of guy uncomfortable with any eye contact.
So to the fans who went to see Cornell with Soundgarden back then, Cornell’s solo acoustic show Saturday night (Nov. 16) at New York’s Beacon Theater might have been a perplexing affair. To begin with, there was his grand entrance: he hit the stage, clad in a black button-down sweater on a custom made bicycle grinning from ear to ear. After putting down the kickstand, he explained that it was built for him by an 11-year -old fan named Tony Harrington. Before strapping on his guitar, he shook hands with many ecstatic fans in the front row, smiled and thanked everyone for coming. Cornell has gone through well-documented life changes in the past few decades, and it’s clear that they’ve brought him to a much better place. If he doesn’t have the anger he used to, his abilities as a performer are as good, even better, than they’ve ever been. Partially because his voice is in better shape, but partially because he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself.
After opening with a brand new song, “Bend In The Road,” he played one of his solo hits “Can’t Change Me” and then went into a mellow-rock classic from 1970, Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” He explained that he played it for his wife (who was sitting in the front row with their children) at their engagement party, and then thanked his mother-in-law — who was hanging out at side stage — for allowing him to marry her daughter. Later on in the show, he covered another mellow classic from the same year, Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” — another far cry from the harder songs Cornell used to cover and name-check.
Later in the show, an aside to the audience may have explained why his covers lean more toward the light singer-songwriter fare. Before playing a trio of Temple of the Dog songs (“Wooden Jesus,” “Call Me A Dog” and “Hunger Strike,” the latter with opening act Bhi Bhiman singing Eddie Vedder’s vocals), Cornell explained how his supergroup changed his musical outlook. In the early days of Soundgarden, he said, they tried to be as abrasive, as different and as uncommercial as possible. The Temple Of The Dog project, which Cornell noted had no real commercial expectations, was his first time trying out conventional songwriting.
Fans are surely grateful that he made that initial stab at writing more melodically. The change in approach led to many of the songs that made the setlist that night: Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” and “Fell On Black Days”; Audioslave’s “I Am The Highway,” “Dandelion,” “Like A Stone” and “Doesn’t Remind Me”; and his own “Seasons” (from the Singles soundtrack). His latest song, “Misery Chain” from the current film 12 Years A Slave, made the setlist with a shout-out to John Legend, who curated the film’s soundtrack and asked Cornell to contribute.
Although the show was solo/acoustic, it wasn’t quite “unplugged.” Twice during the evening Cornell played a backing track on a vinyl record and sang along sans guitar, first on his solo song “Silence the Voices,” accompanied by the recording of a full band. It seemed weird that he wouldn’t just strip it down to an acoustic piece, but these shows are supposed to be intimate — and what’s more intimate (and awkward) than watching a guy sing along to a record? Still, the effect worked a bit better the second time, when he played another solo song (“When I’m Down”) accompanied by the song’s original piano track, played by the late Natasha Shneider. In that instance, it was a lovely way of paying tribute to a fallen friend and collaborator.
Another unusual moment was the “One” mash-up he’s been trotting out this tour. Cornell sings the lyrics to the Metallica song while playing U2’s. He said he was trying to learn to play U2’s version, Googled the lyrics, and Metallica’s came up first — so he combined them.
It’s moments like the aforementioned mash-up that show where Cornell seems to be at these days: He has nothing left to prove, but he’s still trying interesting and unusual things. Like fellow Seattle icon Eddie Vedder, he’s still fronting a band that remains relevant and plays large venues, and he also gets to do shows that are a bit more intimate, experimental and laid-back. If there’s a guidebook to aggressive rockers aging gracefully, Cornell is writing it right now.