Photos provided by Chris Cornell’s PR company
Chris Cornell‘s voice and lyrics have long been part of the American alternative rock firmament. As lead singer with proggy grunge pioneers Soundgarden, whose zenith, the genre-defining, quintuple-platinum ‘Superunknown’ album yielded a Grammy award-winning single in ‘Black Hole Sun’, Cornell’s dark, powerful vocal was the perfect medium by which to transmit the portentous material with appropriate levels of gothic gravitas.
Soundgarden themselves didn’t make it out of the ’90s (until their reunion was announced in 2010, that is), but Cornell went on to further success with those members of Rage Against the Machine who weren’t Zack de la Rocha; the Audioslave project yielded three critically-acclaimed albums. His only solo album, Euphoria Morning, was released in 1999. In 2011, Cornell embarked on his Songbook tour, a solo acoustic show which lasted the latter half of the year and took in three continents; notably, Europe wasn’t included. 2012 sees him amend that oversight; with the Continental leg still ongoing, Newcastle-upon-Tyne saw the final UK show, Cornell fresh from an acclaimed performance with Soundgarden at Download festival.
The stage setup is as relaxed as Cornell’s persona: with plain backdrop, stool, a few expensive acoustic guitars, a brace of electrics, and intriguingly, a turntable and a red old-school analogue telephone, there’s no doubt that this is to be a stripped-back show. But the instant he kicks into opener ‘Scar on the Sky’, and that enormous voice comes ripping out of the speakers, it’s apparent just how powerful a show this has the potential to be. Cornell’s guitar playing is decent enough, but it pales into insignificance when compared with the virtuosic intensity of the vocal performance. Attempting to describe the intensity of such a sound with mere words is a fruitless task, but here goes… the lower and middle registers emit a thunderous yet pillowy rumble, overlaid with a ripped treble, like a velvet dress being torn to shreds. The higher registers (and they go high – Cornell boasts over five octaves of range) variously display a buzz-saw edge, or a delicate, silken intensity, entirely depending on the emotional demands of the song. It’s not only the range, but also the tonality, that is impressively controlled: on ‘Ground Zero’, Cornell does a fine impression of a long-lost Motown artist, all yearning, soulful vocals. Elsewhere, as on the high notes of ‘As Hope And Promise Fade’, one can’t help but be reminded of Janis Joplin’s most manic moments. There’s no doubting why Cornell has been such a successful rock frontman – it would be a rare instrumentalist indeed who could match the expressiveness and intensity of his voice.
The material is no less impressive. Variously drawn from Soundgarden and Audioslave, with notable contributions from his solo career (‘Can’t Change Me’ benefits from the minimalist presentation); the songwriting is variously touching, complex and impactful. But the most memorable part of the whole performance isn’t necessarily of Cornell’s making; a few songs in, a heckle comes: “Can I play a song with you, Chris?” A bit of respectful banter betwixt performer and audience member, and the episode appears forgotten.
But a few songs later, Cornell bravely invites said heckler up on stage to play a song. The audience holds its breath as the tousle-haired hobbit straps on an acoustic guitar and strums the first few chords… how dreadful will this be? How will Chris cut things short without making the chap feel like a failure? Anyway, a few chords in it’s clear that the young interloper has expertly prepared for his moment in the spotlight – not a finger is put wrong throughout the four minutes of ‘Spoonman’, and the singer, relaxed and shorn of instrumental responsibility, puts in arguably his best performance of the night. The rapturous standing ovation is genuinely well-deserved, and tribute to the old adage: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” As Cornell himself rightly opines, “He’s going to get laid tonight!”
Any negative points seem churlish in the context of what is a genuinely world-class performance. In common with all solo performances, the emphasis is on the subtleties of the material, and a love for the performer concerned; there are no fripperies to amuse the less dedicated listener, except for a couple of songs which employ vinyl backing tracks. Cornell does have a love for the obvious cover version, with Marley and the Beatles making an appearance, but for the dedicated fan, this is fantastic value; over two hours’ worth of material from an important and talented rock artist. With the legacy of grunge becoming ever more obvious with the benefit of hindsight, this is a rare chance to see a survivor of that era prove why he’s had such a long and successful career. Yet he never did pick up that red telephone… I wonder who he was expecting to call?