Tonight it’s rammed in Birmingham’s 02 Academy as fans flock in to see one of the giants of grunge, the recently reformed Soundgarden. And as I arrive, Swedish rockers Graveyard are giving it a bit of heavy bluesy-rock, smattered with psychedelic riffs. Joakim Nilsson (guitar and vocals), Jonatan Larocca-Ramm (guitar and vocals) Rikard Edlund (bass) and Axel Sjöberg (drums) came together in Gothenburg in 2006 out of the ashes of previous bands and musings. Similar in genre to the main headliner (which makes a change), the crowd responds well. They finish their half hour set with the Zeppelin-inspired blues title track off their second album. Latest album ‘Lights Out’ was released in October 2012. To cheers from the crowd, they promise they will return; you can heck them out via their Facebook page.
And now we wait for the main act, we watch a ridiculous amount of roadies swapping kit, even one vacuuming the stage! And while we wait here’s a potted bit of history. Formed in ’84, Soundgarden were one of the seminal bands and leading lights in the Seattle grunge scene before it spread out across the globe. They may have been first to sign to a major label but international success came on the back of the bands following in the wake of Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam.
Chris Cornell (vocals and guitar), Kim Thayil (guitar), Matt Cameron (drums) and joined by bassist Ben Shepherd in 1990 and, after localized, success launched album ‘Badmotorfinger’. It was the follow-up, ‘Superunknown’ which sent them stratospheric – a dark, multi-award winning album compete with Grammy winning tracks: ‘Black Hole Sun’ and ‘Spoonman.’ The follow-up ‘Down on the Upside’ was a tad of a departure – not as heavy than their previous works and, as touring took its toll; Soundgarden spilt citing “creative differences.”
Each member’s career took a different direction. Cameron joined Seattle kinsmen Pearl Jam becoming their permanent drummer; Cornell went solo, hooked up with members of Rage Against The Machine to form supergroup Audioslave, before returning to a successful solo career, recording a Bond theme plus a sidestep with Timbaland and more recently, touring extensively with his ‘Songbook’ acoustic / spoken word gigs.
13 years after the split, Soundgarden got back together. Live gigs followed in 2012 with a trip to the recording studio culminating in their first album in 15 years ‘King Animal’. Soundgarden alone, let alone all the other projects, have sold well over 22 million albums worldwide; tonight is one of a handful of dates across the UK in O2 Academy venues.
The band is due on at 9pm, and at five past a roadie comes out and fixes the setlists to the floor; Soundgarden mix up their set – never doing the same one two nights in a row. The crowd starts a slow handclap and start shouting in anticipation. Then to strobing lights, each member separately appears on stage, to rapturous applause from the crowd.
First up ‘Let Me Down’, receives a big cheer but an even bigger response to second track; the tub-thumping ‘Spoonman’. Cameron and Shepherd give the bass rhythm core whilst Cornell stands and screams above the crowd as the track rolls on. The Brum crowd is well pleased!
Third track in is a heavy thumping track, with riff from Thiyal accompanied by Cornell’s stunning vocals. Another from their latest outing, ‘By Crooked Steps.’ The affable Cornell: “Thank you… been a long time since we’ve been here… we have some friends from Birmingham – Kim said write a song about Birmingham so we did…”, and as we roll into first single from ‘King Animal’ ‘Been Away Too Long.’ (I do speculate they say this about every place they play in…). Then an old track, ‘Get on the Snake’ has an anecdote about when they started out and dragging themselves around the world in a van. Cameron (like I need to say this) is a mesmerising drummer.
This is a well rounded setlist from the guys, something old, something new, something classic, something out the norm… the new single from ‘King Animal’, ‘Pretty Noose’ followed up with that jingly guitar riff as Cornell’s implores… “Follow me into the desert as thirsty as you are…” – this be ‘Burden In My Hand’ – one of the stand out tracks of tonight from their pre-split last album. The crowd accompanies Cornell as he sings.
Then the classic and iconic dark ‘Black Hole Sun’, albeit delivered a tad lacklustre. Next a song that was the first they played when they come back together and surprisingly one they never played live in their previous life. You can see why they did; ‘Blind Dogs’ is a powerful track. And then back to ‘Superunknown’ and a track that was written in the ‘dreary’ Seattle – ‘ a place where there is seven different types of mould’ – it’s ‘Fell on Black Days.’ Big cheers followed by ‘Blow Up the Outside World’ a track that rolls and rolls, Cornell backlit as he swings his arms while playing his guitar. Set completes with ‘Rusty Cage’- Shepherd is not happy, giving his bass away and disappearing off stage.
For the encore we get two tracks, starting of with off with the controversial (at the time) ‘Jesus Christ Pose.’ Soundgarden 2013 is indeed an older incarnation. The band gave fans tonight a real mix of the Soundgarden musical journey. If they hadn’t split after ‘Down on the Upside’ it would have been interesting to see where their creative journey had taken them – 2013‘s ‘King Animal’ skipped a beat as they all took different journeys. As a band, they may not be as energetic as they once were – letting the music do the talking. After nearly 30 years since they formed, the talent of Cornell and his truly incredible voice and Cameron the thunder-god, are clearly the standout members of the foursome. A good night, though I’ve seen Cornell with Soundgarden, Audioslave and with and without band in tow, and Cameron and his mates in Pearl Jam, give far better live performances – tonight the band seemed muted – Cornell seemed less keen to front the band, but more aware of being part of them.
Tickets were a tad on the pricey side tonight at £40+ for one of their shorter sets at twenty songs and an hour and fifty minutes. Nearer fans than I spotted technical difficulties – was this the reason for the shortened set? Will Soundgarden return once again? It feels like Soundgarden has become the band member’s side-project – Shepherd’s just released a new album, Cameron will soon be off thumping the skins with his ‘other’ band Pearl Jam, as they promote their new outing, Cornell has just released a huge tour of North American as part of his acoustic ‘Songbook’ tour. Cornell, interviewed in January, said there was no reason the band shouldn’t make more music in the future. So their paths may cross again and they may well once again visit our shores.
1. Let Me Down
3. By Crooked Steps
4. Been Away Too Long
5. Worse Dreams
6. My Wave
7. Get on the Snake
8. Non-State Actor
9. Pretty Noose
10. Burden in my Hand
11. Blood on the Valley
12. Black Hole Sun
13. Blind Dogs
15. Eyelid’s Mouth
16. Fell on Black Days
17. Blow Up the Outside World
18. Rusty Cage
19. Jesus Christ Pose
20. Slaves and Bulldozers
Review by Zyllah Moranne-Brown
Photographs by John Mason