Review: Chris Cornell covers his career in stripped-down, spellbinding set at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater
Chris Cornell is a friendly man.
The Grammy-winning singer of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and supergroup Audioslave showed up to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Friday night for a solo acoustic performance, and immediately began chatting up the audience after high-fiving front-row fans. The man is credited as a pioneer of the ‘90s grunge movement, has a 31-year musical career and 15 albums in his back pocket, yet he talked to the sold-out crowd like they were old friends.
Last month he released his fifth solo album, Higher Truth, which yielded a folksier, softer side of the 47-year-old rock legend. During the show, he said he wrote most of it in Florida over the past few years due to “life’s forces you can’t predict.”
Chris Cornell is also a prolific man.
Of the 29-song, career-spanning, 2 ½-hour setlist (“I’m going to keep playing, you all can go home if you need to”) he eased in with his solo work and opened with a harmonica-laced Bend in the Road, his trademark vocals giving the Mahaffey's excellent acoustics all they could handle.
Big fans numbered the audience, and naturally they went ape over hits like Black Hole Sun, Fell on Black Days, Blow Up the Outside World, I Am the Highway and Hunger Strike, but they doled out multiple standing ovations for When I’m Down, Call Me a Dog, Sunshower, Like Suicide and covers Billie Jean and River of Deceit. But more on that shortly.
Chris Cornell is also a refined man.
He and the drinking and the drugs are no longer friends. The stranglehold of such vices appears in much of his material, and echoed through a raw, gutted and seldom performed Two Drink Minimum: “I’m lonely and I’m thirsty but it’s better I stay dry / No more than two drinks away from crying.”
While able to still channel the dark days, Cornell has evolved into a softer version of himself, as heard in tracks Josephine (a song about his wife Vicky that he said took him 13 years to get right), Let Your Eyes Wander, Wooden Jesus and Higher Truth.
Renowned for his mastery of reimagining covers, Cornell didn’t hold back on his nods to musicians who have inspired or befriended him. He paid homage to Led Zeppelin with Thank You (citing his involvement with Jimmy Page’s autobiography), A Day in the Life by the Beatles, Bob Dylan’s I Threw It All Away, the ever popular Billie Jean by Michael Jackson and his long-gone ‘90s brother Layne Staley with an emotive encore of Mad Season’s River of Deceit. He even performed Johnny Cash’s version of Rusty Cage, not Soundgarden’s. So meta.
Chris Cornell is also a funny man.
Fans kept shouting song requests, amongst many things (oh, Tampa Bay), so he responded by trolling the crowd with multiple teases of I Put A Spell On You and House of the Rising Sun. He bantered about marijuana legalization in Florida, why raves aren’t popular in Seattle (too much beer drinking) and how his son is better on computers than him. He was filled with anecdotes and commentary, a true storyteller during and between songs.
His down-to-earth style was just an added bonus. One man on stage filled the entire theater. Nevermind his seven-guitar spread, or on-and-off accompaniment by cellist Bryan Gibson, Cornell could have done without all of these and gone purely a cappella. His powerhouse pipes could have reached across the Bay.
Chris Cornell is also a multi-faceted man.
The stripped-down acoustic set allowed reinvention and authentic arrangements to songs he’d sang 500 times. Fell on Black Days became hopeful; Black Hole Sun less spooky and more chaotic; Call Me A Dog felt like spoken word. A heavily distorted and pulsating Blow Up the Outside World symbolically conveyed all the anger and love in one better-than-album cut. His penetrating raw vocals and gritty guitar riffs on Hunger Strike unleashed his unparalleled range in a crisp, ethereal rendition.
Many will argue about the best songs of the night, but my personal picks are Two Drink Minimum, Fell On Black Days, Sunshower, Hunger Strike and River of Deceit.
Behind his curly, shoulder-length tresses and black combat boots, he’s still gruff but tender. A glowing red anatomical heart donned the backdrop alongside illustrations of multiple armillary spheres -- a perfect allegory for a man who has stood the test of time, provided a 30-year soundtrack for the alternative age, and a man who vulnerably shared his out-of-this-world musical heart.
-- Stephanie Bolling