*Photo taken by your intrepid blogger
My friend’s younger brother, who I call Young Goodman Brown for no good reason, emailed a couple of months ago. He lives in Tulsa now and is a successful orthopedic doctor. And here I remember him as high school kid with a bleach blonde mullet. Time passes quickly, folks. Young Goodman Brown was excited about this year’s line-up for Rocklahoma, the annual hard rock/heavy metal festival held out in some field in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma. He’s always trying to convince his brother and I to come down there. After using “the Google” to find the line up, I too was impressed. The Cult was playing this year and you know how much I dig the Cult. I was surprised to also see Soundgarden on the line-up. It’s always great when a band gets back together. At the time it was the only gig they had scheduled but I knew they’d have to be doing some sort of spring/summer tour. Nobody goes out for just one gig.
To my delight and Young Goodman Brown’s disappointment, I found out that Soundgarden was indeed touring more extensively and better yet, coming to Kansas City. There would be no heavy metal camping in Oklahoma for me this year. I was a little shocked a band as heavy as Soundgarden was playing at Kansas City’s venerable Starlight Theater – it’s usually the host of Broadway type musical theater, my parents have season tickets every year, but not so last night. Right before I left for college my parents took me out there for the first time to see Elton John, which was actually awesome (much to my surprise at the time) which tells you Soundgarden isn’t the usual Starlight fare. The Rock Chick, my old friend Steven and I snapped up tickets as soon as they went on sale and Ubered out there last night. I even saw my stereo guy out there and he’s a bigger music junkie than even I am. I knew this would be a special evening.
I will say, the evening started off with the opening act, The John Dillinger Escape Plan and it was not a good start. It was three guys pounding their instruments while the lead “singer” screamed at the crowd. I literally told the beer guy I felt like I’d done something wrong and was in trouble. The lead singer was that angry… It’s hard being Catholic. It’s best to spend the time the opening act is on stage in the beer garden like I did last night. In the interest of full disclosure, I did take ear plugs out there… I knew this was going to be a loud evening.
I’m embarrassed to admit, I forget how heavy and how hard rocking Soundgarden is. I tend to think of them along with the other great grunge bands like Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. And while all those guys rocked hard with an almost punk sensibility, none of them rocked as hard as Soundgarden. I remember thinking back in the 90s that they were the Sabbath of the grunge movement. My buddy Steven told me last night he heard someone say that on MTV so my “Sabbath” analogy may not be purely original, although I sure thought I came up with it. These guys rock with a fucking vengeance. Why they’re not in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame is a mystery and perhaps even a scandal.
I knew Chris Cornell was a great front man, that’s expected. His vocals are simply amazing live. I was blown away by his singing. I went out there thinking, “Well, Cornell is awesome, but Thayil will be the hero of the evening.” Kim Thayil, the lead guitar player is one of those great, great guitar gods you never hear anything about. He’s quiet, unassuming, and just shreds. He was laying thick slabs of monster riffs in the most laid back manner. He also plays some intricate, beautiful solos. The guy is the definition of virtuoso. However, I wasn’t nearly as impressed with him as I was with drummer Matt Cameron, which is saying a lot. Cameron is the engine that drives this band. After seeing last night I must say he ranks up there with Neal Peart or Tommy Lee, two of my favorite hard rock drummers. His back beat with Ben Shepherd’s loud, insistent bass guitar was the rock-bed, solid foundation from which Cornell and Thayil soar. Their chemistry is fabulous. Cornell kept having issues with his ear buds and at one time had to run backstage. The first time that happened, Cameron played a great, brief drum solo to cover for Chris. The second time it happened, the whole band joined in on a improvisational jam. I like the moments when things fuck up on stage almost as much as the precision moments.
The opening track, “Incessant Mace,” was a track I was not familiar with. My history with these guys only goes back as far as ‘Batmotorfinger,’ so the opening track wasn’t in my memory bank. Usually when I see a show, I’m such a completist I know every tune they’re playing, which I will say, helps me enjoy the show more. “Incessant Mace” is a slow rolling heavy rock number. I didn’t know it but I really enjoyed it. They played a couple other tunes I didn’t know, which I enjoyed, but then they hit their stride when they played “Spoonman.” Cameron really had the chance to shine on that one. They actually opened with the beginning of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” which I wish they’d played in it’s entirety.
After “Spoonman” they launched into “Outshined,” a muscular, slow dirge-y “Black Hole Sun,” and then the hard “By Crooked Steps” from the great, overlooked comeback LP, ‘King Animal.’ The band played tunes from their entire career. It’d be easy at this point for them to come out and play most of ‘Superunknown’ and phone it in. These guys played all over their catalog and played with passion. “Rusty Cage” is a Rock Chick favorite and I can now say it’s one of my favorite since I heard it in all it’s glory last night. Steven turned to me last night after “Jesus Christ Pose,” and said, “I never really liked that tune until this very moment, seeing it live.” Support live music folks, it’ll change your perspective of the music and the songs. You haven’t experienced a song until you’ve heard it live.
“Fell On Black Days” was a particularly high point for me. The song came out when I was going through some bad shit, and the song means a lot to me personally. I’d announced it’s the only tune I’d be disappointed not hearing. They did not disappoint. It was built around Cornell’s fabulous vocal. I was blown away. It was truly the high point in an exceptional concert. Cornell actually played a lot more guitar than I expected last night and I have to admit, he can play. Cornell said at one point, before the encore, that his grandparents lived in Kansas City and it was always a special place to him. I don’t know if it’s true, but it seemed genuine and it was a really nice moment. Then they launched into the encore tune, “Slaves and Bulldozers,” which Cornell said was named by a 5 year old. If you want a hard rock/heavy metal clinic, put on “Slaves and Bulldozers.” It led to a feedback frenzy as each band member slowly left the stage.
This was an exceptional night and an exceptional performance. These guys are just astonishingly good. From guitar solos to vocals to drums, there were so many jaw-dropping moments. It was so heavy and so loud I felt like I was in college again. Never underestimate master musicians practicing their craft. If you’re in a city lucky enough to be on this Soundgarden tour, do yourself a favor and get a ticket. Buy the ticket, enjoy th ride! Hell, I might even go down and camp in Nowhere, Oklahoma to see them again… and that’s saying something.