By Brian Ives
Towards the end of his two-plus-hour set last night at New Jersey’s Bergen Performing Arts Center, Chris Cornell joked about how his songs lack any sense of hope.
This line of conversation came while Cornell was explaining that he’d decided to cover U2’s classic “One,” because it’s a sad song, but one with some hope. To learn the words, he Googled “One lyrics,” and started learning the song. The problem, if you want to call it that, was that the lyrics he got were from Metallica’s “One,” not U2’s.
“And,” he laughed, “That song has no hope at all!” Alas, he stuck with Metallica’s lyrics for the version of the song he’s been performing at his solo shows for years.
It was a typical moment at Cornell’s show, a solo career-spanning acoustic show that the singer has been touring with for about seven years. Cornell showed his self-depreciating humor, and there’s a real warmth with the way he shares his stories with the audience.
And this, as longtime fans of Soundgarden know, is starkly different from the Cornell we saw fronting the legendary Seattle band in the late ’80s and ’90s. Back then, he didn’t seem to enjoy being on stage, particularly as the stages that Soundgarden played got bigger.
Today, as many of his peers have long since broken up, retired, or play much smaller venues, Cornell seems to appreciate the position that he’s in: Soundgarden are a working band, and his solo shows pack theaters around the country. These days, he probably thanks the fans more in one night than he did on the entire Superunknown tour.
In fact, before he even started, he noted that crowds on his current tour have been louder than usual, and he challenged the audience to be even louder than any previous crowds. He kicked off with a handful of solo songs: “Before We Disappear” from last year’s excellent Higher Truth, “Can’t Change Me” from his solo debut, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, and his latest, “‘Til the Sun Comes Back Around,” from this year’s film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Before the latter song he said, “It probably comes as no surprise to you that I’m a pacifist,” but sent the song out to the men and women of the military “Who do what they do so we can do what we do.” Cornell has never been overtly political, but it was the type of unifying comment that the country needs more of (and will probably get less of).
After playing his now-iconic cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which he started playing last year, he described why there’s a mandolin “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” (also from Higher Truth). It was an impulse buy, he said, but he never thought he’d use it. When he wrote the song he recalled telling the instrument, “This is your moment, I’m gonna make you a star!”
He then said he was going to play a protest song “that’s perfect in every way… so I changed the lyrics.” He then did an update on Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changin’,” called “The Times They Are A’ Changin’ Back. “Come presidents blue and congressmen red,” he sang. “We do what’s been undone and undo it again/As we carry the load for the 1%, who bought you your seat at the table/Well the wine pours red and the hearts turn black, And the times they are a changin’ back.”
The other covers played it a bit more straight: Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” (he was in New Jersey, after all) and even Mad Season’s “River of Deceit.” After the latter song, he spoke of his admiration of that band’s guitarist Mike McCready (also a member of Pearl Jam, and a one-time bandmate of Cornell’s in Temple of the Dog). “He’s the nicest, most amazing person.”
He then reconsidered part of that statement: “I did meet Stevie Wonder once, and he was really nice too. He wouldn’t remember it. He wouldn’t recognize me in the street.”
As the audience laughed/groaned at that one, he said, “It’s a fact! But he was really interested in what you had to say. Whereas Mike McCready is kind of interested in some of the things you have to say.”
Through the rest of the set, he thrilled fans with songs from the Soundgarden, Audiosoave and Temple of the Dog catalogs; he also played a song that seemed to be made up on the spot called “Lobster Song,” in which he wondered if he was a mollusk or a crustacean. As Cornell alluded to, his songs tend to be rather heavy, and it was fun to watch him play such a goofy song. One of the most enjoyable parts about his shows is seeing him have fun actually performing and talking with the audience.
He closed the show with the title track of Higher Truth, singing “You can fill the world with pain/Yeah if you want/I’ve seen it now/You can fill the world with hate/I’ve seen it done before/And I know how it all works out.” This is coming from the guy who, a quarter century ago, wrote and sang Soundgarden’s “Ugly Truth.” (“I don’t think I really/Understand you/And I can’t see why/I’d ever want to”). Is “Higher Truth” the “hopeful” song he’s been trying to write? Maybe not, taken on it’s own. But at least these days, he might be a little more open to understanding people, and at least giving them a good time for a few hours.