Chris Cornell has been gone for over two years now, and his suicide still stings. He was a singular talent and one of the most powerful vocalists in rock history.
Make no mistake, though: Cornell made plenty of bad music in his career. He put out several solo albums that were mostly varying degrees of boring, cliched and inert, and one of them — the Timbaland-produced “Scream” — is easily on the Top 10 list of “worst albums by great musicians.” He did three records with Audioslave, a band that started out okay and got progressively more embarrassing with each release.
But, when he reunited with Soundgarden in 2010, he was once again in the right context. His voice and his sensibilities as a singer were always perfectly positioned in that band to rub against the pummeling drums of Matt Cameron, the angular basslines of Ben Shepherd, and the exotic guitar lines of Kim Thayil. Though Cornell's voice was undeniably aged and not as astounding as it had been 15 or 20 years earlier, it was still a force of nature capable of stunning a herd of buffalo at 100 paces. And, while their reunion album “King Animal” wasn't one of Soundgarden's best, it was perfectly respectable and at times quite good.
The band's tour for that record found them wrapping up their road work at the Wiltern in Los Angeles in 2013. PBS was there to tape the show for their “Live From the Artists Den” series. Several songs aired, but the whole 29-song, two-and-a-half-hour concert is now being released for the first time. It serves as a reminder that Soundgarden was a great band and Cornell an era-defining singer, but it also demonstrates the foursome's weak points as much as their strong points.
Truly, Cornell was never the best live vocalist. His piercing banshee wails were always perfect on record, but he could often struggle with pitch and pacing in the live setting. Go listen to a YouTube concert from the early '90s, and you'll likely be impressed, but there will be cringey moments, too. It was always part of the deal.
“Artists Den” is no different. It presents an older Cornell with more control as a singer, but with diminished capabilities. If his voice on the 1996-era record “Live on I-5” was fried and overworked, he sounds here more grizzled and worn down, like the vet that he had become.
His 2013 voice works for him on certain cuts, like the winding “Non-State Actor” and the apocalyptic, Lennonesque “Blow Up the Outside World.” In other places, like the still-terrifying “Jesus Christ Pose,” he sounds as if he's got a throat full of broken glass.
Weirdly, though, he seems to warm up as the show goes along, and, by the end, he's wailing the doomy “New Damage” like the Cornell of old, his high notes crisp and clean. The same is true for the show-ending “Slaves and Bulldozers,” which features some of his craziest pyrotechnics.
“Live from the Artists Den” is a mixed bag. Good performances sidle right up next to below-average ones. As an album, it's got its issues. The best way to take in this performance is to watch the video version, which provides a you-are-there immersion that helps make the rough edges smoother, while also helping to present the band as they were: a fantastic hybrid of underground music, downtrodden heavy metal, Beatlesque pop and Zeppelinesque bombast. Even on a B-minus day — as “Artists Den” was — they could still crush a band such as Greta Van Fleet like a bug.
Soundgarden is dead. Long live Soundgarden.
Album: “Live from the Artists Den”
Recorded at: The Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles
Personnel: Chris Cornell (vocals, guitar), Kim Thayil (guitar), Ben Shepherd (bass, vocals), Matt Cameron (drums, vocals)