Finally! Nineteen years after missing them at Reading 94 due to their late withdrawal, I saw Soundgarden live for the first time, and was not disappointed, even if the sound at Brixton Academy was a tad on the muddy side (apparently it was no better the next night).
That Soundgarden’s fans are, for the most part, entering various stages of middle age with varying degrees of grace was reflected by a glance at the merch stand. Quite apart from the eye-watering prices – £25 for a t-shirt… at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old codger (yes, I know), I paid £10 for a Brad t-shirt earlier this year – you could also kit out your firstborn in his or her own Soundgarden babygrow. A snip at £15 too. Anyway, into the auditorium armed with a pint of Brixton Academy’s finest…
Support came from Gothenburg band Graveyard. The name may suggest an affinity with some of the classic Scandinavian doom and death metal bands (Entombed, Candlemass, Ghost), but their sound (and look – though they need tassels on their denim jackets if they’re going to do this properly) suggests formative years smoking mother nature and listening to old Allman Brothers records – sounds like a damn fine way to pass those long winter nights and banish the svårmod. Joakim Nilsson has a great set of pipes for soulful blues-rock, and drummer Axel Sjöberg mixes a more controlled, jazz-inflected style with some out-and-out Bonham-isms. What the band would give for a Duane Allman to flesh out the songs with some classy fills.
Soundgarden were straight into their groove with set opener ‘Spoonman’. As you’d expect with a classic grunge band, the focus is all on the music: getting the vibe right and delivering their songs articulately (albeit muddily on the night). It was lively down the front of the audience! Chris Cornell plays guitar on nearly all the songs, and is focused on the mechanics of playing rhythm and singing – not an easy task with Soundgarden’s material. His voice is not quite what it was in its pomp, but is still strong and distinctive, his head cocked to reach the higher notes, of which there are plenty. He talks to the audience more than I expected, but coupled with his wry sense of humour – ‘what is Brixton an academy of?’ he asks at one point, answering his own question with an impish ‘evil’ – comes a certain degree of detachment. (If it fails to meet performance measures though, it will become Brixton Free School.)
Kim Thayil is a quiet, seemingly diffident presence on stage, but his guitar as ever delivers a mix of monstrous riffs and trademark fast, awkwardly phrased, wah-drenched solos. (If you want to know more about his live set up, this rig rundown with the band from earlier this year is worth a watch. It is interesting, I promise. In fact, the whole thing is worth a watch – you get to find out that Ben Shepherd names his bass guitars.)
On an earlier night of the tour, in Birmingham, Shepherd had stormed off stage towards the end of the set when his amp stopped working, leaving the other three to play a more trebly version of ‘Rusty Cage’ than usual. Tonight he skulked round the stage, a looming presence, bass slung low. You can find many ways to describe Shepherd: a contrary, complex, awkward, intense, introverted individual, one these days resembling a dyspeptic badger. But in his jarring rhythms and unusual style of bass playing he brings a huge amount both to Soundgarden’s sound and their presence. And he kindly gave his setlist to someone in the audience at the end.
It was interesting to hear how Shepherd and Matt Cameron play together. When in Pearl Jam, Cameron is locked tight with bassist Jeff Ament, whose bass lines fit snugly with the kick drum. But Pearl Jam’s songs tend to be more conventionally structured, whilst Soundgarden’s are quite different beasts, and Shepherd a very different bassist to Ament. Often Shepherd’s bass lines form more of a second rhythm, to counterpoint the guitars, than a traditional bass line. This gives the songs more texture, especially when they are in awkward time signatures; the flip side to this is that Cameron then carries more of the heavy lifting of the songs’ basic rhythms on his own. Needless to say, he does this with great aplomb. Cameron may now be the other side of 50, but he still combines relentless precision, however complex the song, with some at times explosive drumming. He also contributes most of the backing vocals, and seems to have some sort of automated system for swinging his mic round in front of him when required (probably a roadie with a long piece of string).
The band played only the first three songs from their fine comeback album King Animal; disappointingly for me as I’d been hoping to hear more of it. I’d wondered if for their European tour they’d decided to focus on their older material (King Animal apparently hasn’t sold well over here), but on other nights of the tour they’d been playing more tracks from it. The big plus of hearing fewer newbies was of course that there was extra space for the oldies. Soundgarden dug deep into Superunknown, ‘Mailman’ and ‘My Wave’ being particular highlights. Down on the Upside was also well-represented, and the set overall was a fine mix of the obvious (‘Rusty Cage’) and the less-expected (‘Get on the Snake’, ‘New Damage’). The band finished the encore, just ahead of the curfew, with a lengthy ‘Slaves and Bulldozers’ that incorporated both ‘In My Time of Dying’, the old blues song made famous by Dylan, and ‘Rowing’,
Here’s ‘My Wave’, recorded by someone up on the balcony. Sound isn’t great, but the energy is.
Plenty of ideas for which songs Radio Seattle will tackle next!
Setlist (18 Sept): Spoonman, Let Me Drown, Flower, Outshined, Drawing Flies, Ty Cobb, Non-State Actor, Get on the Snake, Been Away Too Long, My Wave, Pretty Noose, Burden in My Hand, Tighter and Tighter, Mailman, By Crooked Steps, Black Hole Sun, New Damage, Blow Up the Outside World, Rusty Cage
Encore: Limo Wreck, Superunknown, Slaves and Bulldozers
Setlist (19 Sept): Room a Thousand Years Wide, Spoonman, Flower, Outshined, Rhinosaur, Hunted Down, Ty Cobb, Non-State Actor, My Wave, The Day I Tried to Live, Been Away Too Long, A Thousand Days Before, Burden in My Hand, Fell on Black Days, Blow Up the Outside World, Superunknown, Dusty, Rusty Cage
Encore: Blind Dogs, Like Suicide, Beyond the Wheel