Soundgarden Bayou Music Center May 24, 2013
Grunge sounded old even when it was new. This misbegotten mutation of metal and alt-rock tapped into such primordial angst and soul-suffering it seemed world-weary even as bands like Soundgarden acted as the genre's midwife in the late '80s and early '90s.
Today it sounds pretty much the same, so even after a layoff of approaching 20 years, Soundgarden still stands as one of the finer practitioners of this unwieldy, punishing music. Friday night at Bayou Music Center, with no opener and a minimum of fanfare, the quartet fought off a few stray cobwebs to deliver two nigh-pulverizing hours of music that proved "Been Away Too Long" is more than just a song title from their new album.
Of the "Big Four" bands to emerge from Seattle about 25 years ago (sorry, Mudhoney), Soundgarden weren't prone to the same pernicious appetites that felled Nirvana and Alice In Chains, and their music had a much more subterranean tilt than Pearl Jam's arena-chasing anthems. Their 1994 album Superunknown made them stars anyway -- it was too good not to -- but something about the spotlight didn't agree with them, and they broke up not that long after Down On the Upside was released two years later. Then, first with 2010's career-spanning Telephantasm and now with last year's all-original King Animal, Soundgarden returned from hibernation almost like they had been preserved in amber.
Strangely enough these days, the band seems to be back because the members have realized that they still enjoy making music together, and that they still have something to say. The thickly textured material on King Animal doesn't quite approach the same pop heights as the great Beatlesque Superunknown singles, but the new songs' dogged tenacity and weatherbeaten, naturalistic imagery go hand in hand. Coupled with the wintry forest landscapes of Friday's accompanying video projections, any King Animal tune the band played Friday would be ideal for the next season of Game of Thrones.
Saying hello with "Spoonman" before "Jesus Christ Pose" immediately launched the audience into a hang-on-for-dear-life vortex of Matt Cameron's battering-ram drums and Kim Thayil's unrelenting guitar squalls, Soundgarden explored some of the darker corners of their catalog all the way back to "Hunted Down" from 1987's Screaming Life EP. Until the very end, this was no singles-only affair; the set list was studded with deep, deep cuts like Badmotorfinger's "Room a Thousand Years Wide." "Rhinosaur" all but loosened my teeth, and by Telephantasm's "Black Rain" the ol' Bayou Music Center was feeling pretty airless.
Riffs, they had riffs too, with lots of jagged edges: the new "By Crooked Steps," a teasing "My Wave," or the nailgun that was "Ty Cobb." The sphinx-like Thayil is no showman, but his stoic demeanor and minimal movements (a Townshend-ish half-windmill or two was about it) made a stark contrast to the torrents of sound he was conjuring. After sparring with his amp for some reason during "Jesus Christ Pose," bassist Ben Shepherd made his notes throb like helicopter blades until it seemed like he was the one supplying what melody there was amid Thayil and Cameron's maelstrom.
But just when it seemed like the music couldn't get any more claustrophobic, Soundgarden pulled back just enough to let in some light for the Zeppelin-like twist of "Been Away Too Long." It wasn't a lot, but it was enough for the subsequent "The Day I Tried to Live" to provide a huge release from all the heaviness and bleakness, at just the proper moment. Never go so far into the woods that you can't find your way back out, in other words, a lesson that seems to have worked its way into more than one of their songs. Maybe all of them.
Encouraging the audience to recycle (heh), front man Chris Cornell took a few songs to achieve a full-on rock-god wail ("Black Rain" is when I first noticed), but even before that he made the slithering "Gun" invoke both sex and danger. The pace quickened through "Drawing Flies" and "Hunted Down," and by "Ty Cobb" he was prowling the stage like a prizefighter.
But then, at the beginning of "Black Hole Sun," Cornell suddenly seemed very tired and vulnerable, almost frail. (He certainly didn't sound that way, so maybe it was just my imagination.) But in the encore, after "Like Sucide," he also slipped in a little of Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" to King Animal's laborious, feedback-soaked "Rowing," which made for a jarring, somewhat unsettling closer.
My buddy figured there had to have been a hard 11:30 p.m. cutoff, but even still, these are not happy songs, and Soundgarden is hardly tapping into the fountain of youth. Friday, they seemed more like an old muscle car that's been painstakingly restored and made street legal again -- the paint may be chipped in a spot or two, but what's under the hood can still blow almost anything else off the road.
Personal Bias: I always preferred Soundgarden to Nirvana or Pearl Jam. If Alice In Chains had had their shit a little more together, they would have been up there too.
The Crowd: Late twenties to late forties; ex-jocks in cargo shorts and plentiful rock chicks. Fewer smartphone camerapeople than at most shows, but enough to make it goddamn infuriating.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Fuck that line!!!" -- someone felt strongly about waiting to buy a T-shirt until after the show.
Random Notebook Dump: Smelled more cigarette smoke here than at any other show in a long, long time. Weed I could almost understand.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.