Procrastination is, as someone famous once doubtless said, the mother of invention. I’m terrible at procrastinating, but for this post at least I got something positive about it. (You’ll have to read down a few paragraphs of digressive text to get there. Please simply skip on to para four if you wish, you’ll just miss out on a bit of gentle whimsy.) Sometimes when writing blog posts, I get a touch of writer’s block. Well, nearly always in fact. This block manifests itself in varying ways and to varying degrees; it can be a little while after the event before some reviews emerge blinking into the sunlight.* Other times I get distracted by ‘researching’ things to include in the post, be that youtube clips from the gig/tour or official videos of the songs.** Or I need to reorder the setlist to see what’s come from where. Worse still, I end up playing Spider Solitaire when listening to said youtube clips. Black mark.***
The wind has temporarily deserted my sails in reviewing the Charles R. Cross biography of Kurt Cobain, Heavier than Heaven: the book’s been read (tick), I’ve sketched out the themes I want to waffle on about (tick, I’m quite pleased with the analysis underpinning these themes, or tropes, as I should call them to sound authoritative and scholarly), and the book itself is replete with, if not a forest, at least a small copse of post-it notes (again, tick). Similarly, I’ve made good progress on the first in a new occasional series of posts (no spoilers on what this series may be about; it’s pretty damn fine, if you ask me). But as to writing the actual review or actually completing the first (very) occasional series post…
George Orwell once said that writing a book was a “horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness”. Oddly he never critiqued the art of blog-writing, but I’m sure he’d have come up with a suitably pithy and incisive turn of phrase. Perhaps blogging is like man ‘flu, or restless leg syndrome, or something equally enervating.
Chris Cornell swung into town at the start of the month on his latest solo tour, and produced a truly sublime performance at the Royal Albert Hall. I sat down this afternoon**** to review the gig and then remembered that he played ‘Seasons’ in the encore. ‘It’s in an unusual tuning. Wonder what it is?’ I idly mused. A quick google brought up two options, both plausible. ‘It’s Chris Cornell,’ I mused, ‘so it’s bound to be the weirder one. Let’s try out the tab in F-F-C-C-C-C.’ Some busy re-tuning of my acoustic, and half an hour slipped by trying out the song. Give it a go. Even if like me you don’t really know what you’re doing in this tuning, it makes your guitar channel the spirit of Skip James and fills the room with plaintive, melancholic open chords. You’ll also hear Cornell’s soulful baritone and occasional falsetto in your head as you play the song.*****
All of which doubtless fascinating digression into my psyche, the agonies of writing and the merits of open guitar tunings doesn’t actually get me any nearer the purpose of this post, so I suppose it’s time to bring the prologue to a close and crack on with chapter 1. Or at least it would be, but I’ve run out of time and will have to continue later. Don’t go away…
Right, back again. Support came from Fantastic Negrito, a Somali San Franciscan steeped in the blues. His soulful voice was backed up by a pianist also providing chorus and harmonies, and although his guitar playing was a bit scratchy at times (the pin-sharp acoustics in the Royal Albert Hall betray even the slightest musical shortcomings), his voice carried the set, not least in a cover of Leadbelly, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ that added a gospel longing to the original whilst also craftily tipping the wink at the old Seattle scene. A perhaps unexpected choice for support, but an excellent one nonetheless.
Cornell – Seattle’s very own musketeer – bounced on to the stage to a rapturous reception and, after a brief hello and an apology for not intending to talk much during the set because he wanted to make the most of his time onstage, tore into ‘Before We Disappear’ from his most recent solo album, Higher Truth. Cornell was clearly delighted to be playing at this venue; understandably so, as it gave full value for his still-remarkable voice, one that’s matured elegantly, enabling him to give full expression to both his solo material and to band songs adapted to suit his acoustic performances.
After admitting early on that he’d arranged his European tour dates in order to be able to play at the Royal Albert Hall, the venue was interwoven into his performance, from a digression on the baroque backdrop of the grand organ (and how the proceeds of the British Empire were sunk into erecting it), to reminiscing on classic old live rock albums recorded there in a haze of dope smoke, to finishing his main set with an entrancing cover of The Beatles masterpiece ‘A Day in the Life’ and its oblique reference to the RAH. There was also a warm ovation for one of the venue’s season ticket holders, Jimmy Page, following a faultless cover of one of his songs, ‘Thank You’.****** Needless to say, it takes only a cursory listen to early Soundgarden – or indeed Audioslave – to appreciate how significant an influence Led Zeppelin were on Cornell and the band.
Much of the set was simply Cornell with an acoustic guitar, lending a stripped-down simplicity to some classic old songs, most notably in the set highlights ‘Call Me a Dog’ – one of three songs from Temple of the Dog, the others being ‘Hunger Strike’ and an unexpected ‘Wooden Jesus’ – and ‘Rusty Cage’, the latter utilising the arrangement in Johnny Cash’s unforgettable cover of the Soundgarden song to great effect. The quality of Cornell’s guitar playing was plain to the ear, too, the excellent acoustics in the hall bringing out the clarity of his fretwork. Most impressive was his take on ‘Blow Up the Outside World’, a song I hadn’t expected would work well live with a solitary acoustic guitar. Cornell also demonstrated a playful sense of humour by creating a hybrid cover of ‘One’ that allied the upbeat guitar line of U2 with the grisly lyrics of Metallica; a self-deprecating streak was revealed in his awareness that many of his own lyrics can be on the gloomy side.
Cornell was accompanied on several songs by multi-instrumentalist Bryan Gibson. Gibson provided the mandolin part for single ‘Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart’, and piano elsewhere, but his biggest contribution to the set came with the cello, creating fuller arrangements and greater dynamic tension where required. Most notable were the reworking of ‘Black Hole Sun’, the cello mimicking Kim Thayil’s freewheeling 9/8 guitar solo, and in the swirling crescendos in ‘A Day in the Life’. Gibson also added depth to Cornell’s poignant cover of the Prince classic, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.
There was the occasional false step, unsurprising in a two-and-a-half hour set: Cornell’s bland Bond song was given an airing, perhaps because he thought it appropriate to dust it down when in the UK; and the cover of Michael Jackson, ‘Billie Jean’ owed an awful lot to the reinterpretation by The Civil Wars. Slightly frustratingly, Cornell has a habit of slurring and eliding vocals when singing live; fine when you know the song well, but for his reworded cover of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” it was hard to tell how he’d breathed new life into the Dylan staple.
Cornell wouldn’t have made it out of the building without playing ‘Seasons’, possibly his finest piece of songwriting, and it duly appeared towards the end of the encore. He then closed the set with a rousing take on ‘Higher Truth’, a Beatles-inflected song that to my ears sounds over-orchestrated and structurally forced on the album, but which live rode the wave of the mood in the hall and deftly brought the evening to a close, Cornell cleverly using loops to build the sound into a crescendo.
Reviews of the gig by the Independent (5 stars) and, with more scepticism, the Telegraph (4 stars against expectations) have been rightly fulsome in their praise.******* In my previous draft, I wrote that Cornell came very close but didn’t quite hit the jackpot on the Vedder-o-meter. On reflection, my Pearl Jam bias was peeking through a touch here. The two plough similar furrows in their solo material, unsurprisingly perhaps. But whereas to underpin his material Vedder communicates with charm and a natural warmth on stage, for Cornell the music is expressed more coolly through the performance itself and the sheer quality of his musicianship. Vedder delivers his songs with more overt passion than Cornell, and interacts more with the audience in the delivery; he weaves his occasional mistakes into the fabric of his songs. Cornell performs his songs with a controlled precision and an inward-looking intensity; he doesn’t seem to make mistakes live.
It was only with the release of Higher Truth that I belatedly paid attention to Cornell’s solo material, but I’m glad to have done so (review here); I’d go as far as to say that it suits his voice and his songwriting these days more closely than does the reformed Soundgarden (although I’ll be extremely happy if their next studio album disabuses me of this notion).
Setlist: Before We Disappear, Can’t Change Me, As Hope and Promise Fade, Nothing Compares 2 U, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Fell on Black Days, Thank You, Call Me a Dog, Doesn’t Remind Me, Blow Up the Outside World, Let Your Eyes Wander, You Know My Name, I Am the Highway, Misery Chain, One, Rusty Cage, Black Hole Sun, Hunger Strike, Wooden Jesus, A Day in the Life
Encore: Billie Jean, Josephine, Seasons, Higher Truth
PS Needless to say, there are loads of songs from this gig on youtube; someone even recorded the whole gig if you’ve a couple of hours to spare:
* It really is only a small touch of writer’s block, honest.
** But not – yet, anyway – cat videos. There’s still hope for me.
*** One step up from Minesweeper. I’ve managed to lance that time-wasting boil quite effectively.
**** For ‘this afternoon’, now read last weekend.
***** Or at least I did. Can you imagine how his musical collaborators responded when he turned up one day, told them he’d written a new song, and played them ‘Seasons’?
****** Does he get the same treatment at the Proms, I wonder? Zeek’s uncle is also a season ticket holder – as far as I know he’s not Jimmy Page as well, I’m sure Zeek would have mentioned this by now – and swapping notes before the gig Zeek was confidently predicting that the tickets Paul had got for the two of us would have a good view. ‘They’re front row circle seats,’ Zeek pointed out. ‘I’m in the stalls. You should have a great view, better than mine.’ Paul and I weren’t quite sure about this, not least because we’d gone for cheaper tickets. Turned out we did have front row tickets – up in the gods. Couldn’t even see the back of Zeek’s head down in the stalls, where he probably needed to dab himself down regularly from the sweat flying off Cornell’s brow. Great sound even from our elevated position. Who’d have thought someone so small could make so much noise?
******* The Telegraph reviewer insightfully suggests Cornell could replace Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin should Page ever wish to tour again. Leaving aside the near-sacrilege of suggesting a Led Zep without Percy, and considering solely Cornell’s vocal style, well, duh.