Soundgarden, back on the road, gives ultimate boost to ardent fan
NEW YORK — Two songs into the first of two sold-out Soundgarden shows at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom, lead singer Chris Cornell eyed the overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged crowd and remarked, “I see that long hair is no longer a fashion statement.” He paused, adding impishly, “In fact, I see that hair is no longer a fashion statement.”
Mature concertgoers did outnumber younger fans last week at this sumptuous, century-old former opera house in midtown Manhattan. And halfway through the veteran band’s set, Cornell and company made this night profoundly memorable for one intrepid fan of 20 — the same age as Soundgarden’s lead singer when he co-founded the group in 1984.
Still, the array of shiny pates was clearly an irresistible target for Cornell, 49, and still sporting the signature mop of curls that he used to whip back and forth onstage during his band’s stomping heyday decades ago. Soundgarden was a key originator of 1990s grunge, the heady, Seattle-centered punk-metal hybrid (which its Emerald City contemporaries Nirvana would take to the bank in 1991, courtesy of the paradigm-smashing “Nevermind”).
Soundgarden’s root system actually extends all the way to Chicago, where the band begins a two-night stand this evening at the Riviera Theatre. Guitarist Kim Thayil (his parents are from India’s eastern state of Kerala) was born in Seattle, but raised in south suburban Park Forest. The emphatically unconventional Thayil was enrolled in Rich East High School’s alternative-learning program, there making friends with kindred spirits Hiro Yamamoto (who’d become Soundgarden’s original bass player) and Bruce Pavitt. After graduating in 1981, the three headed west to Washington to continue their schooling via the alternative curriculum at Evergreen State College.
Becoming immersed in Washington’s underground music scene, Thayil, Pavitt and Yamamoto gravitated to Seattle, its epicenter. Pavitt started a fanzine, which would evolve into Sub Pop Records; Thayil and Yamamoto joined a bar band called the Shemps, led by “yet another person from Chicago,” as Seattle native Chris Cornell told this writer during a 1989 interview.
“He’d put an ad in the paper for ‘vocalist wanted,’” Cornell went on, “and I kinda wanted to do it. I was a drummer, but I’d been doing backup [vocals] and getting lots of compliments. So I answered the ad; that’s how I met Hiro and Kim.” As it transpired, their tenure with the Shemps was brief: “We didn’t really like the guy whose band it was.”
“Here’s an interesting footnote,” Thayil put in. “That guy ended up being the head of the Pat Robertson for President campaign in Washington state. He was the youngest delegate for Washington at the  Republican Convention.”
“So in a sense, a Pat Robertson delegate — or even Pat Robertson himself — got Soundgarden together,” Cornell deadpanned. While conservative icon’s contribution to the grunge movement was unintentional, its effects have reverberated for decades.
After Soundgarden signed to A&M Records, its big-league debut was recorded and released in 1989. “Louder Than Love” welded the rhythm section’s land-mass riffs with Cornell’s blowtorch keening, propelled by avant-garde time signatures like 7/4 and 9/8 and shot through with enigmatic, often sardonically humorous lyrics. In the process, Soundgarden made heavy metal palatable to the alt-rock audience (no small feat to win over whose officially scorned ’70s hard-rock stalwarts like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, two undeniable forebears of the Soundgarden sound). It was a template that embraced intriguing variations, including psychedelia, and it served the band through a total of four A&M albums. The third, “Superunknown” (1994), debuted at No. 1, went multiplatinum, and scored two Grammy Awards.
However, “Superunknown” has been Soundgarden’s one and only blockbuster to date. Its final A&M release, “Down on the Upside,” did attain platinum status — and led to the band’s co-headlining the 1996 Lollapalooza tour — but Soundgarden called it quits the next spring, reportedly to pursue individual projects.
Thirteen years of individual (and some collaborative) projects later, Soundgarden re-formed in 2010. The band headlined Lollapalooza, releasing the studio retrospective “Telephantasm,” and a tour album, “Live on I-5.”
Soundgarden’s currently on the concert trail supporting its first all-new album in 16 years, “King Animal,” which has been hailed as a return to form and then some. Last week’s New York dates were the first of six double-night stands on this monthlong tour; Chicago’s are the third.
Save for the now silver-toned beards of guitarist Thayil and bassist Shepherd, opening night at the Hammerstein Ballroom found the members of Soundgarden still largely resembling their pre-millennial selves onstage. Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron, in fact, seemed all but unaltered. And they’ve become a far more cohesive, dynamic live act over the years as well; despite the unusually lofty level of musicianship among band personnel, Soundgarden’s previous gigs tended at times to be scattershot. Cornell’s singing voice was noticeably limber, though his spoken introductions betrayed hoarseness — his four-octave range has telescoped, but Soundgarden’s screamer-in-chief hit a decent percentage of the high notes.
No stamina shortage among these long-serving road warriors, either: the band played a full 2½ hours, sans opening act and intermission.
Midway through Soundgarden’s set, 20-year old Jeremy Barbour of Syracuse, N.Y. caught Cornell’s attention with his homemade sign: “Can I play Outshined onstage?”
Barbour, guitarist for a local Syracuse band, Storm Cell — and who wasn’t even alive when “Louder Than Love” came out — had become a Soundgarden devotee through a “’90s-junkie” friend. Aware than Cornell had previously invited fans to play alongside him on solo tours, Barbour was determined to do the same when the band came to New York City.
So Barbour practiced for two straight weeks his favorite Soundgarden song, “Outshined” (from second A&M album “Badmotorfinger”), bought a poster board and wrote out his question in felt-tip marker. Arriving two hours early at the Hammerstein with a scalped general-admission ticket, he waited in the single-digit wind chill for the doors to open.
Once inside, Barbour staked out a spot by the stage barricade, lofted his sign, and hoped. In any case, he had nothing to lose: “The worst that could happen,” Barbour later reflected in a phone call, “would be that they’d do ‘Outshined’ without me, and I could put the sign down.”
But Cornell actually read Barbour’s request aloud, instructed security to let him through, and the next thing he knew, Cornell’s guitar tech was handing him the singer’s own silver Gibson, and Barbour was rocking “Outshined” onstage with Soundgarden. As a band fan site from Chile tweeted the next day, “Genial por Jeremy que cumplió su sueño!” (“Cool for Jeremy who fulfilled his dream!”)
Moira McCormick is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.