Acoustic guitars and grunge have gone together well ever since Nirvana’s appearance on MTV Unplugged, so its no surprise that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell has had such a success with his similarly stripped-back Songbook tour, and this was another triumphant, legacy-affirming performance.
Cornell still isn’t really a household name in the UK, despite enjoying great critical and commercial success with both Soundgarden and Audioslave, and – as he is quick to point out – doing the song to the most successful Bond movie of all time. Indeed, it’ s You Know My Name, from Casino Royale that he starts the set with, and it sounds great even without all of the bombast of the studio version. After that, it’s obvious that he could play pretty much anything from his ‘songbook’ and make it sound good with just his acoustic guitar.
So much so that sounds from the audience for songs like Jesus Christ Pose and Big Dumb Sex follow, though he laughs them off with good humour. In fact, he does absolutely everything with good humour, taking the opportunity of a more relaxed and intimate performance to display a lot more of his personality than he gets to when on-stage with a band. He even makes a joke about this being the first time any of us had actually heard his speaking voice, which wasn’t far wrong. It was certainly the first time we found out how funny and downright nice he is.
There’s plenty of banter throughout with the audience and at one stage he even picks out someone from the front row who had a sign saying ‘Please Let Me Play Guitar With You’ and gets him up on stage to play guitar with him on two tracks, going as far as to let him plug his own band’s Facebook page. It could have been disastrous, but he did well, helping out on Doesn’t Remind Me and a really impressive Fell On Black Days. A night he certainly won’t forget and the same can be said for the couple who got up on stage to have their photo taken for Cornell’s Twitter feed. It was that kind of night.
But, of course, it was mostly about the music rather than telling jokes and kissing babies’ heads, and with a back catalogue of two great bands, a diverse solo career and quite a lot of songs from soundtracks, it was no surprise that the show ran on to two and a half hours and a whopping 27 songs. And you can’t get much more diverse than covering songs by both Tom Waits (the brilliant House Where Nobody Lives), Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson (his famous Billie Jean cover), and then finishing with a mind-blowing Day In The Life by The Beatles and a version of Imagine by John Lennon that strips away the hype and cynicism that surround it nowadays to celebrate the great song that it really is.
Cornell’s voice is, of course his most unique instrument and still sounds as good as ever, possibly better than it has done for a while, and you certainly wouldn’t know that he’d been belting out the hits with Soundgarden at the Download festival last weekend. On songs like Blow Up The Outside World, Hunger Strike and Burden In My Hand, he sounds like he’s shredding his vocal cords to reach impossible notes at improbably volumes, but then shows no sign of it affecting his voice afterwards. Obviously he also provides more than able musical back-up for himself apart from a couple of songs where he gets help from his record player, including the affecting When I’m Down, with piano played by the late Natasha Shneider of Eleven, who I actually saw supporting Soundgarden around 16 years ago.
Moments like that help bring so much of Cornell’s warmth and personality into the music, and with songs like Black Hole Sun, Burden In My Hand, Wide Awake (Audioslave’s anti-Bush track was definitely one of the highlights), I Am The Highway, All Night Thing and even a plugged-in Mind Riot, this was an incredible night of great music from one of the most under-appreciated musicians around. His solo career has been patchy at times (though the title track from ‘his hip hop album’ Scream was performed and done very well), but this Songbook tour and live album – and Soundgarden’s reformation – mean that Chris Cornell is definitely riding high again and it was a privilege to hear him in such close quarters.