Nostalgia rarely surprises, but when it does, the past can again seem fresh. Tuesday at the first concert of a sold-out two-night stand at Riviera, Soundgarden briefly conjured the vibe of its formative Sub Pop era. Vocalist Chris Cornell jettisoned his guitar, got on all fours and growled. His mates followed, playing at a rapid clip and conveying menacing intent. For the duration of "Hunted Down," the Seattle-based quartet traveled back to 1988 when it had simple expectations and no mainstream aspirations. Not exactly typical for a group accustomed to filling arenas and headlining Lollapalooza.
Nearly three years into a reunion that ended a 13-year hiatus, Soundgarden gives the appearance of a band seeking to prove it intends to stick around a while. Rather than coast, the ensemble released a record last fall and recently began debuting brand-new music onstage. Its current tour is hitting smaller venues, affording the group chances to get up-close with fans and—in the case of Tuesday's diverse 140-minute set—draw from every facet of a career that's grown progressively commercial.
Little has changed in the band's dynamic. Cornell embraced an extroverted rock-star persona, emitting chest-thumping cries, rearing back his head and brushing a mane of hair away from his eyes. Chicago-reared guitarist Kim Thayil stood as the polar opposite. Wearing a fedora and sporting a graying beard, the savvy instrumentalist evoked an unruffled hit man that prefers to work in the shadows. Yet Soundgarden's secret weapon came in the form of drummer Matt Cameron, who balanced intricate rhythmic signatures with sheer physical force to instill songs with abrupt textures.
Soundgarden thrived on heavy fare that strayed just far enough from hard-rock convention as to suggest mysterious alienation and ominous circumstance. Howling feedback ("Jesus Christ Pose"), swirling psychedelia ("Superunknown") and soft-to-loud swells ("Blow Up the Outside World") pierced songs twisted with metal riffs and Eastern-style drones. Cornell's high-pitched wails and low-end murmurs received aid via echo and delay effects. While his voice no longer reaches the very top of the range, apparent on slower tunes like "Black Hole Sun," the band made up for the minor shortcomings.
Apart from a one-dimensional "By Crooked Steps" and plodding "Rhinosaur," Soundgarden eschewed straightforwardness. Varying degrees of tension and restraint controlled whether songs crawled, crept, swung or scraped. Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd tended to the groove, even amidst noisy fits. The approach carried over to a show-stealing "Incessant Mace," whose moaning distortion and bluesy desperation smothered any thought of grunge-heyday sentimentality.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun