The rust of two years off the road isn't showing on Soundgarden in 2017.
Well, except for maybe a little on their sense of geography.
"In our 30 years of being a band, we actually haven't played South Florida much," Chris Cornell told the crowd Friday at 98 Rockfest at Tampa's Amalie Arena.
Tampa? South Florida? Um, not quite, and as a Miami transplant, Cornell ought to know.
But his point is valid: Soundgarden has played Tampa Bay but once over the last 25 or so years, and even that was without regular drummer Matt Cameron, off on his day grind in Pearl Jam. So their gig at 98 Rockfest, with Cameron joining Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shephard, was a heck of a long time coming.
Were the Seattle demigods the right choice to headline 98 Rockfest in this day and age? Debatable, considering how many of the 6,600-plus fans appeared to hit the exits after powerful sets by younger acts A Day to Remember and Pierce the Veil.
But Soundgarden does have the hits, and they all came from an era when rock still mattered to the mainstream, and so this night was theirs to close.
Cornell, shaking tendrils of mossy black hair form his stubbly face, unleashed his banshee's wail on a barrage of them, crunching through Spoonman, Outshined and Black Hole Sun in the first four songs (alongside relative rarity Kyle Petty, Son of Richard), and Fell On Black Days and Jesus Christ Pose later on.
With Cameron (much missed, his chops as Hall of Fame-worthy as ever) and Shepherd powering the band's signature labyrinthine rhythms, Cornell and Thayil raced through throttling cuts like Flower, The Day I Tried to Live, Been Away Too Long and All Your Lies. Cornell's grinding riffs and Thayil's wizardly solos drive slobberknockering head trips Black Hole Sun and Blow Up the Outside World, and walloping closer Beyond the Wheel shook the seats in the upper deck, drenching the arena in a mushroom cloud of distortion.
While no one questioned Soundgarden's top-of-the-poster billing, it meant they had the unenviable task of following A Day to Remember on their Central (not South) Florida home turf. Fresh off receiving the key to their hometown of Ocala, the mighty metalcore outfit proved they might well have ruled the top slot, too.
"I've been to many Bolts games right here," said singer Jeremy McKinnon, admiring the largest Tampa Bay venue they've ever played. "This is f---ing rad to play. I think I'll be here on the 6th for Tom Petty, too."
Petty might've approved of what turned out to be a mildly down-to-earth set -- cascades of confetti, toilet paper and oversized beach balls, yes, but no human hamster balls -- the group showed off its melodic side by getting the crowd singing on the pop-punky We Got This and All I Want and the emotive Have Faith and All Signs Point to Lauderdale.
"You paid good money for these seats," McKinnon said as he urged the crowd to get up and start missing. "Get your f---ing money's worth!"
Nearly stealing the show early on was shirtless, shoeless wonder Jonny Hawkins of Texas prog outfit Nothing More. Wailing and thrashing and drumming like a maniac, Hawkins led the band through a magnetic set of sci-fi-flavored shredding and pounding, from the bruising Salem to the surprisingly introspective Jenny, at one point scaling a Transformer-like electro-percussive rig like some sort of Mad Max war boy.
Nothing More wasn't an easy act to follow, but Pierce the Veil and Highly Suspect didn't back down. The former had absolutely no problem stirring up screaming moshers amd crowdsurfers, delivering deafening metalcore lightning-in-a-bottle as they blitzed around the stage like rabid bats and brought out McKinnon on Caraphernelia. The latter thundered out Grammy-nominated grooves with both a snarling dirt-metal edge and a cavalier sense of humor, mugging for a crew member filming on his phone; having the arena sing Happy Birthday to their cohort DJ Redbees; and contest-winning fans in lawn chairs.
That's one perk of 98 Rockfest -- between all the contests, meet-and-greets and free early stages, fans could get awfully up close and personal with the rock gods on stage.
Earlier, about 30 fans got into Amalie early to watch a serene Soundcheck performance by Beartooth, who during the show thrashed and cracked open circle pits from on high. Up in the Firestick Grill, A Day To Remember took part in a fan Q&A, while spaced-out prog-rockers Starset, fresh off a smoke- and synth-powered outdoor set, unplugged for a few acoustic songs for VIPs.
That outdoor pre-show, while hotter than jalapeño charcoal, gave early risers a chance to crank up the volume for free with Starset, '90s-inspired power grunge trio Dinosaur Pile-Up and Southern-tinged Floridians Loose Talk, comprised of a couple of ex-Anberlin'ers and St. Pete's Mark Etherington (Set and Setting, RedFeather, Mountain Holler) on drums.
One other gift fans took home after 10-plus hours of 98 Rockfest: A ringing in their ears, thanks to the echoes of Soundgarden's eardrum-splitting performance ringing in the rafters after midnight. Perhaps Cornell might've been right all along: They could probably hear it in South Florida, too.
-- Jay Cridlin