“I think there are certain emotions you forget when you live without the seasons,” said Chris Cornell at the start of his sold-out show at the Egg last Thursday. The Northeast autumn air outside had summoned up something for the Seattle native and veteran frontman of grunge bands Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog. Cornell eventually left the damp Pacific Northwest for the sunnier but seasonless clime of Los Angeles, where he formed his former hard-rock group Audioslave with members of Rage Against the Machine, and lives today.
Several songs later at the Egg, as devoted fans in the crowd called out scattershot requests, Cornell did play “Seasons,” the haunting ballad that marked the start of his solo career in some respects when it appeared on the grunge-filled soundtrack to the Seattle-centric romantic comedy Singles in 1992. It wasn’t until this year, however, that Cornell undertook his first-ever solo acoustic tour in support of Songbook, a live, unplugged album released this week that revisits his 25-year career of various bands and solo albums.
Without the full sonic weight of a thundering rock outfit behind him, and with Cornell admittedly no guitar maestro himself, the focus here was solely on the songs and on Cornell’s commanding, wide-ranging voice. Looking like an ageless grunge survivor at 47, with the same lithe frame, intense stare and dark curly hair he had decades ago, Cornell sat on a black bar stool with Jeff Buckley’s red rotary telephone placed beside him. (The phone never rang; turns out it was a talisman-like gift from Buckley’s mother).
In the dark and close-quartered Hart Theatre, the intimacy lent a new vulnerability and power to certain tunes, including the harrowing Temple of the Dog song “Hunger Strike” and fan-requested “Sweet Euphoria.” The older Soundgarden tunes were also affecting, including crowd favorite “Fell on Black Days,” the war-weary “Mind Riot,” the stripped-down “Burden in My Hand” and signature grunge-era tune “Black Hole Sun,” which sounded especially stark and naked.
During the show’s best moments, some meaningful turns of phrase that may have been lost in a louder setting came to the fore. “I’m lonely and I’m thirsty, but it’s better I stay dry. No more than two drinks away from crying,” Cornell sang on a heartbreaking “Two Drink Minimum.” And on “Call Me a Dog,” the strikingly candid line, “I’ll call you beautiful, if I call at all,” resonated with an honest, weary sadness.
In between songs, Cornell was capable of being quite funny, leavening some of the seriousness. His story about running into members of Lynyrd Skynyrd in an airport and complaining to them, unthinkingly, about his hatred of flying was tragicomic—but still a knee-slapper. If Cornell faltered, it was on his selection of covers; he’s performed some unexpected ones on this tour, from Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” to Syd Barrett’s “Dark Globe.” But the choices on this night were more predictable, and the world probably doesn’t need another rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” or Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Cornell’s super slo-mo version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was a bit more interesting, though.
Craig Wedren, the theatrical former lead singer of post-hardcore band Shudder to Think, opened with a solo set that drew from a new album, Wand, and included a few selections from his more recent career writing music for television and film. Highlights included “Pool Kiss,” written for the mother-kisses-future-daughter-in-law hot-tub scene from the movie Laurel Canyon and a quite beautiful version of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way.”