Live Shots: Soundgarden at the Civic Auditorium, 7/21/11


After capping off a monstrous 20-plus song set yesterday, on Thursday, July 21, with the tortured grind of “Slaves & Bulldozers,” Soundgarden put an exclamation point on their performance with a six minute shake-the-building-foundations, horses-of-the-apocalypse audio assault.

Amid waves of controlled feedback and blaring Seattle Sonic resonance, I thought my dental fillings were shaking loose. I was worried the Civic Auditorium balcony would soon collapse. I suspected that teenagers might start exploding throughout the audience.

If there had remained any wayward ounce of Superunknown sentiment regarding Soundgarden’s return, it had been extinguished long before the encore. The ear-bleeding onslaught at the outro was entirely (and wonderfully) gratuitous, then. Apparently the band just wanted to ruin our hearing for the rest of the week to make their point.

Yes, Soundgarden was in prime fighting shape. If you hadn’t caught it at the 1996 show at Kaiser Auditorium (now featured on their Live On I-5 disc) or the Greek Theater during grunge’s high watermark or the Warfield in all of its youthful glory -- well, you still got the real deal last night. Not only did the band deliver on its trademark heft, but the setlist was epic.

The group relied most heavily on material from Superunknown and Badmotorfinger, but dug deep into the vault at times, with the likes of “Ugly Truth”, “Loud Love,” and the early-as-it-gets “Nothing To Say.” Soundgarden also gave San Francisco first listen to some glorious obscurities that have yet to surface on their reunion tour, with an amped-up “Drawing Flies” and an entirely anthem-oriented “Head Down.”

All of the band’s radio hits were included, which at times this made for a somewhat disjointed iPod shuffle-style pacing to the night. But the slower, quietly textured numbers are all essential to Soundgarden’s identity -- and say what you like, but “Black Hole Sun” might very well be its generation’s “Strawberry Fields.”

As the band wound down the main set with the juggernaut creep of “4th of July,” Soundgarden plunged deep into their element with “Beyond the Wheel,” from their first LP Ultramega OK. Chris Cornell stalked the stage belting out upper register falsettos for the better part of the track, while Kim Thayil let loose on high wire guitar solo wizardry.

There is a stunning weight to all of this, to Soundgarden’s music when it locks one member to another like that. In this sense, their current tour shouldn’t be viewed so much as a reunion, but a question as to why they were apart in the first place.

End notes:

- Talk about grunge. The Civic Auditorium is seriously grimey these days. 

- Former San Francisco Giant and future hall-of-famer Randy Johnson is apparently Soundgarden’s tour photographer. He was seen early on in the photo pit at the start of the show and was photographing from the back of the stage during the show’s finale.

- Notorious for hissy fits prior to the band’s breakup, bassist Ben Shepherd was on good behavior throughout the night. Furthermore, the inclusion of one of his few authored tracks “Head Down” was one of the show’s highlights.

- Drummer Matt Cameron is really something to watch – his is sort of a precision bludgeoning -- half barbarian, half perfectly calibrated robot. (Check him out on the Youtube clip)

- And…why aren’t these guys headlining Outside Lands?