Soundgarden recently played two nights at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York; although I wish I could have afforded and attended both, I went for the second night instead. People began lining up outside of the door as early as 3:30 in 19 degree temperatures, which felt even lower with the high wind temperatures. It was crazy cold out. I barely stood out there myself, only for a little bit at the beginning, and then closer to when the doors opened.
Hammerstein is a large venue inside, and it’s positively gorgeous, with a gigantic domed roof reminiscent of a church, and layers of rowed seating as well as a spacious open floor. People were kind of scattering everywhere, so I managed to nab a spot at the rail right in front of where Ben Shepherd stands. This spot also presented a fabulous view of the entire band, although not so much Kim Thayil, who stood off solitary and mostly motionless on the left side of the stage.
Soundgarden didn’t bother with an opening band. From the stage setup, as the tech people were setting up the instruments, everything looked rather bland, but once the show began, a digital backdrop was revealed that played graphics that went along with each and every song. Think floating Badmotorfinger symbols, hovering eyes blinking amongst psychedelic colors and patterns, abandoned woods with red and orange burning skies, and snow falling sleepily upon an abandoned city.
The spoken word sample of “Searching with My Good Eye Closed” is what began the band’s second night in New York. The crowd was generally well-behaved, and if there was any moshing (which there may have been, a little), it seems to have been confined to the center of the crowd, even when Chris Cornell implored us to “fuck it up!” before the big solo in “Gun”. Yes, Soundgarden tried to represent as much of its respected career and lengthy discography as possible, playing songs that may have predated some of the younger fans in attendance to tunes as new as the ones from King Animal.
“Spoonman” was next, the lively, more sped up version that it always seems to translate to in a live setting. Cornell galivanted across the stage, hamming it up for photographers and giving both our side and the left side of the stage reasons to smile as he stood inches away from the crowd singing. The aforementioned “Gun” had even more energy and fire behind it than it did when it was originally released. “Rhinosaur” reigned the pace in a little bit, but it was a quirky and fun addition to the setlist.
For the old school throng of fans in attendance, “Flower” was played next, although Cornell’s voice kind of got muddied amongst the instruments. It was back in full force for “Loud Love” though, and for the quick pace that was “Drawing Flies”. Clearly sticking to the earlier end of the band’s musical spectrum, the next choice of “Hunted Down” was a fantastic and appropriate one.
I’ll admit I was a little disappointed with the inclusion of “Live to Rise”, if only because I was never a huge fan of the song and I would have liked to hear an actual King Animal track in its place, but it was performed very well. Besides, next the band did “Non-State Actor”, which, while not my favorite track on the new album, was really great. “My Wave” got caught between the newer material, but it sounded as fresh as ever, with plenty of energy behind it.
“Been Away Too Long” was another track with a lot of energy. Even though it’s not necessarily a fan favorite, when it’s done live, it’s a really great track. “Worse Dreams” was really phenomenal, and Shepherd killed it with his bass work. “Blow Up the Outside World” was pretty much note perfect, and “Zero Chance” followed it up well, even if it was the slowest moment of the show.
“Eyelid’s Mouth” picked the pace back up though, and following through with that was a passionate and incendiary version of “Like Suicide”, which had as much feeling behind it as any time that the band has ever performed it. “By Crooked Steps” was a standout moment personally, as I really adore that song, as was “Outshined”, a setlist staple.
“Blood on the Valley Floor” and “Fresh Tendrils” sort of blended into one another for me, with “Mailman” breaking that up. Next was another mandatory tune, “Black Hole Sun”, which was followed by “Rowing”. I know that Cornell has gotten some flak for using a prerecorded bit to replay the chorus of the song, but to me this was a better idea in terms of recreating the vocal layering than him only tackling one portion of the song and leaving others out entirely.
The band left the stage for a few minutes, only to return with the strange choice of “Head Down”. “Rusty Cage” was a bit more of the norm, and it was as brash as ever. “The Day I Tried to Live” was a really nice addition. Finally, in another odd moment, Soundgarden closed with “4th of July”. Matt Cameron tossed his drumsticks out to the crowd, a loud feedback was left blaring in people’s ears in typical Soundgarden fashion, and a phenomenal two hours had passed.
I saw the band in the summer of 2011 in Philadelphia, and although that show had the better setlist, this was a better concert overall. The band sounded much more like a cohesive unit comfortable traversing its entire musical career together. Cornell’s vocals, combined with his appearance and much of the setlist can definitely make you think that it’s 1991 again. Shepherd was quite lively and not the typical sullen, middle finger-brandishing asshole that people make him sound to be. The band was very entertaining and put on an absolutely phenomenal show.