Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016

Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016Chris Cornell + Fantastic Negrito @ Symphony Hall, 2nd May 2016

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Prior to entering the main hall, I ponder on how fantastic a support act can be if they have to call themselves fantastic, but I was forced to eat my words. Fantastic Negrito proclaims himself to be “a man’s truth told in the form of black roots music” and emphasis lies firmly with the word truth including a song called An Honest Man. From the moment he takes to the stage, Negrito’s storytelling and affable character wins over the audience. He is joined on stage by the skilful LJ Hollander on keyboards and providing backing vocals to assist in relaying blues songs with powerful lyrics that are humorous yet sincere. Xavier Dphrepaulezz has experienced a vast amount in his life so far, including signing a major record deal with Interscope, then to lose it all followed by a near fatal car crash that left him bereft of a musical career, and with the birth of his son his creativity was revived.

The car crash left him with severe injuries including his hand, which is why he now plays his guitar in an unusual fashion but creating a sound that is grounded in black roots music.  Negrito’s voice has a roughness of Son House but then unleashes a smoothness of a soul legend such as Marvin Gaye, which he demonstrates in his cover of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A cover version in a different key with alterations to lyrics that Negrito uses as a reason why he hasn’t covered Prince, not only that but it would probably take him a year to learn Purple Rain and even then he suggests that Prince would probably give him a kicking in heaven when he dies. His final song of the set, Lost In A Crowd, was written for the TV series Empire and demonstrates his song writing capabilities at their fullest. But to get the full Fantastic Negrito experience you have to see him live and immerse yourself in his narrative that is utterly fascinating and conveyed in a manner that you can’t help but appreciate, probably because it so authentic.

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Just before 9pm, Chris Cornell purposefully enters the stage to face a sell-out audience followed by Bryan Gibson who takes his place at the keyboard to begin the proceedings with Before We Disappear. This opening track is from Cornell’s latest solo album, Higher Truth, and demonstrates that he is utterly comfortable without a full band whether it be Soundgarden or Audioslave. His inimitable vocal style is what has made him an alternative icon for the past thirty years and it is unquestionably more powerful and melodious than the first time I saw him perform at The Institute over 20 years ago. During Can’t Change Me, Chris is shrouded in yellow light whilst the red, of the anatomical heart on the backdrop, becomes more prominent surrounded by French diagrams relating to Descartes and Ptolomy. Between tracks, Cornell converses with the audience, starting off with a comparison of Symphony Hall to an inverted cruise ship or tribunal for the rebel forces in Star Wars.

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He then makes the mistake of saying he has never been to the venue before; he played Symphony Hall in 2012 as part of his Songbook tour and it is evident from the response that a large proportion of the crowd had been at that gig. After a swift apology and continuous jokes about his poor memory, he performs the first of a number of cover versions. As many artists are doing presently, Cornell provides a rendition of a Prince song, his choice being Nothing Compares 2 U which also sees Bryan return to the stage to play the ‘cello.  Gibson enhances the song with a flamboyant solo that reveals his competency on the instrument, unfortunately the clarity and volume of the cello are lost in the mix and results in a muddied sound.   As Chris takes a seat, Bryan moves onto the mandolin to “nail the shit out of it” during Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart and it is becoming clear how Gibson truly complements Cornell’s performance.  A version of Dylan’s Times They Are A Changin’ provides Chris time to present his anti-Trump rhetoric which, unsurprisingly, receives resounding support whilst he dons a harmonica that has a mic attached, a contraption that’s design was borrowed from Neil Young.

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Fell On Black Days is the first of the Soundgarden tracks to be given an outing this evening, and, for me, they are some of the strongest songs in the set. Cornell’s vocal dynamics are at the forefront of this track and with the addition of tremolo on the ‘cello, towards the end of the track, the expression within the song is enhanced further and leads magnificently on to a version of Led Zeppelin’s Thank You. It is a brave man that tackles Robert Plant’s vocals in the Midlands, yet Chris Cornell has a vast vocal range and you know it is done out of reverence despite his focus on Duran Duran during his between-song banter. A number of Temple Of The Dog songs are part of the set, beginning with Say Hello 2 Heaven, however, it is Wooden Jesus that stands out for me, or, possibly, Cornell’s ability to take on Eddie Vedder’s vocal line during Hunger Strike. Midway through the set, Chris plays Blow Up the Outside World taken from Soundgarden’s 1996 album Down On The Upside. When he played four years ago, this was a stand out track and he has maintained the format in this performance.

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It sees him utilize a loop pedal to create distortion that pounds throughout the hall, adding to the melee with reverb on his vocals and tapping sounds on his guitar, producing a musical representation of the lyrics. Part of Cornell’s engagement with the audience sees many people shout out songs they wish to hear, some of which he decides to play including a version of Outshined that is a pleasing inclusion for many fans, myself included, especially when he manages to include Birmingham in the lyrics. Cornell sends out an ethical call to stop human trafficking and slavery through his song Misery Chain and for this song he plays the backing track on vinyl whilst Gibson adds a ‘cello line, which, again, tends to get hidden by the sound of the record and the strength of Chris’s vocals.  The next track is an interesting experiment that sees Cornell play One by U2 on guitar whilst singing the lyrics to One by Metallica a mash up that intrigues me more than blows me away. A couple of Soundgarden songs start to bring the main bulk of the set to a close.

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A more countrified Rusty Cage, possibly inspired by Johnny Cash’s cover, sees Cornell employ the audience in clapping the basic beat whilst Black Hole Sun, despite being overplayed in the ‘90s, takes on a more sinister edge with the ‘cello accompaniment and Chris’s ability to shatter glass with the volume of his vocals. The final cover version is The Beatles’ A Day In The Life Of which sees Cornell pay homage to the musicians who stirred his initial creativity and with dramatic glissando by Gibson results in a worthy interpretation. So far, Chris Cornell has been on stage solidly for over two hours to which he quips that he has played too long and exits for only the briefest of moments before returning to play another request of Call Me A Dog by Temple Of The Dog.

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The final song of the night is the title track from his latest album, Higher Truth, that is a reminder of the tragedies of Paris and Brussels and sees the vinyl backing track make another appearance.  Considering Cornell’s vast back catalogue, I would have appreciated some lesser known tracks of his own being played instead of so many covers particularly something from the earlier Soundgarden albums, however, you can’t please everyone and I am certain that Chris selects songs that would work effectively in that environment. As he leaves the stage, he is given a well deserved standing ovation as he has provided an evening of superb vocal performance, spontaneity, comedic commentary and understanding of complementary instrumentation and he isn’t too hard on the eyes either.

Words: Toni Woodward

Photographs: Dave Musson

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