Soundgarden at The Woodlands, 8/16/2014

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Soundgarden, The Dillinger Escape Plan Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion August 16, 2014

Although Soundgarden somehow managed to disappear from the hard-bitten rock landscape for more than 13 years, their fan base never went anywhere. Buoyed by continuous rock-radio airplay of their mid-'90s hits, the cult continued to grow in the band's absence, and large crowds are still more than happy to plunk down a decent chunk of change to hear Chris Cornell belt out "Fell On Black Days" again. And if he took his shirt off, that'd be just fine, too.

While the dark and lean Cornell remains physically ageless, the rest of Soundgarden are unashamedly showing their age these days. Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd are not the kind of rock stars who get facelifts and hair treatments. Thayil might've been sporting quite a few white whiskers up there, but his guitar sounded as freaky as ever as the curtain dropped and he cranked up the wah pedal on the thunderous opener, "Searching With My Good Eye Closed."

It was the beginning to a confident and low-key performance opening for Nine Inch Nails in the Woodlands. Soundgarden's place in rock and roll history is long since secure, and they've got a large and loyal fan base still eager to turn out and hear the hits. With Trent Reznor's A/V spectacular anchoring the bill, all Soundgarden has to do is show up and play, and that's pretty much exactly what they did on Saturday night,

REWIND: Nine Inch Nails at The Woodlands, 8/16/2014

Never much given to smoke machines or pyrotechnics, the band simply chugged through a set well-stocked with the essentials. Though snippets were thrown in from Louder Than Love and King Animal, the bulk of Soundgarden's set came from their best two albums. "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun" from Superunknown, which turned 20 years old in March, drew huge cheers. But the good stuff from its predecessor, Badmotorfinger, had the most snap on Saturday.

Though he kept his relaxed banter to a minimum, singer Chris Cornell couldn't help but mention that Texas always put him in a Badmotorfinger sort of mood. After nailing the ear-shattering high notes in "Rusty Cage," he was able to elucidate why.

"If Tony Iommi and Billy Gibbons got together and had an ass-baby, I think that's the kind of song it would write," Cornell said. "Fortunately, that didn't happen."

Story continues on the next page.

Fortunately, indeed. Much has been said about how Cornell's singing voice has changed over the years, with some fans claiming he's lost it and others insisting that he can still bring it with the best of 'em. Both camps are right. His voice is a little rough around the edges in 2014. He struggled with the more inhuman sections of songs like "Outshined" and "Jesus Christ Pose," two great ones from Badmotorfinger. Often, he sounded like he was screaming more than singing.

But he was right there on "The Day I Tried to Live," and sounded pretty great on "Blow Up the Outside World," too. And naturally, the band behind him was rock-solid, fully capable of carrying him through the mildly rough patches. Thayil's buzzing six-string sounded terrific on a heavy and energized version of the bouncy "My Wave," getting the whole crowd stomping along from the pit to the hill.

For the record, Cornell's shirt did finally come off for the group's surprising set closer, "Beyond the Wheel," a relatively deep cut from Soundgarden's '88 debut. After demurring from striking a single J.C. pose all night, Cornell finally looked every bit the classic rock-star front man as he brandished the mike stand overhead like a lacrosse stick.

As Thayil turned the end of the semi-obscure track into a noise-guitar feedback freakout, it was clear that while Soundgarden is happy to play the big hits for big crowds, they still find joy in confusing their fans as much as possible. Perhaps it's the only way for a grunge band to keep things interesting in the 21st century.

The crowd happily took the stranger bits in stride. After all, there was still Nine Inch Nails to look forward to: an ever-changing group of '90s contemporaries weird enough to make Soundgarden look like conventional rock dinosaurs by comparison.

So How Were the Openers? I arrived just in time to see Dillinger Escape Plan singer Greg Puciato hurdling rows of seats to scream in people's faces more efficiently. Never change, DEP.

Personal Bias: I once voted for "Black Hole Sun" on MTV's video countdown.

The Crowd: Not a lot of folks under 30.

Overheard in the Crowd: "She can't be smellin' good under all that leather, bro."

Random Notebook Dump: Soundgarden went pretty heavy on the Illuminati imagery on the big screen -- glowing pyramids and the like. If Kim Thayil is a Freemason, I'm gonna probably need a membership application.


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