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Review: Chris Cornell fills the Tampa Theatre with massive pipes and grunge hits

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Sometimes a cathedral is called for. Like on Saturday night in Tampa, when Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, a face on grunge music’s Mount Rushmore – and, it has often been argued, its most gifted voice – brought a long-delayed solo acoustic show to a sold-out Tampa Theatre in Tampa.

What better place, what more intimate venue, could there have been to admire Cornell’s Promethean pipes, than Tampa’s ornate, historic cinema house? The stage even looked like a painting, with the white-clad Cornell perched in the center, flanked by seven guitars, a record player and, for reasons that went unexplained, a single red telephone; all framed by the Tampa Theatre’s merlot curtains and opulent décor.

And yet this was no whispering gallery. For two hours, Cornell played to a loud and loose crowd, taking requests, bantering and performing songs from every epoch of his multiplatinum career.

In the modern era, only Jack White can match Cornell project-for-project (Soundgarden = The White Stripes, Audioslave = The Raconteurs, Temple of the Dog = The Dead Weather). With Soundgarden back in the spotlight, perhaps Cornell needed this “Songbook Tour” to prove that his songwriting, musicianship and, above all, that voice transcend the band that made him a grunge god.

Cornell kicked off the night by apologizing for postponing this show from November to now due to laryngitis, and didn’t waste much time showing off how he’d reworked some of his best-known songs for this acoustic tour -- like the way he transformed the glammy Can’t Change Me into a dusty spaghetti-western ballad, complete with a final Tex-Mex strum.

Cornell was in good spirits all night, and the amped-up crowd was right there with him. A couple of times, he referenced Sheryl Crow’s recent newsmaking performance at A Taste of Pinellas, in which she apparently forgot the lyrics to Soak Up the Sun. “I was thinking how I always forget the words to my own songs,” Cornell said. “I never really thought it was a big deal.”

That was never a problem whenever he dipped into the Soundgarden catalog. Rife though they are with odd chords and complex time changes, Cornell had no problems reviving classics like Fell On Black Days and Black Hole Sun.

And his guitarwork? Make no mistake, Kim Thayil’s job is safe – but Cornell hung as much meat as he could on those six strings during Outshined, from all the way back on Badmotorfinger. Even better: Temple of the Dog’s Hunger Strike, where Cornell went from sprinkly finger-picking into huge, crunchy chords, prompting a swoony audience singalong.

Without the mind-melting riffs and solos of Thayil or Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, Cornell’s songs revealed more of a bluesy, outlaw-country influence (i.e. Audioslave’s Doesn’t Remind Me, Temple of the Dog’s Call Me A Dog). And his poppier influences always shone through in his solo work, such as Sunshower, Sweet Euphoria and his signature take on Billy Jean.

For me, two highlights stood out. There was pre-encore closer Blow Up The Outside World, which evolved from a Strawberry Fields Forever-type tripfest to a booming cycle of distortion, thanks to Cornell’s use of a looping pedal.

And then there was When I’m Down, a torchy solo song. It was the only time Cornell didn’t play guitar. Instead, he actually played a vinyl record of the piano part. It was a bizarre moment of piano-bar cabaret, yet it sort of fit the moment, and it made perfect, Vaudevillian sense in the onetime silent movie house.

When it ended, Cornell shook lifted the record from its player and shook it triumphantly over his head. “This actually sounds really f---ing great,” he said. “Better than iTunes. Not a little bit better, but f---ing a lot better.”

Personally, I could have used a crisper vocal mix all night – something in the speakers left a wispy, airy quality to his voice – but even in spite of that, every time he hit one of those signature Cornellian wails (“How would I know! That this could be my fa-a-a-a-ate…”), the crowd whooped and applauded him for it.

And why not? Chris Cornell’s voice is a work of art. And the setting demanded appreciation.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Monday, May 14, 2012 10:35am]

    

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