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Monday, Feb. 4, 2013

Soundgarden @ The Eagles Ballroom

Feb. 1, 2013

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Photo by Kiri Lin
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Despite Chris Cornell’s best attempts at sullying it, including a gig fronting the ’90s alternative supergroup/Frankenstein’s monster Audioslave and an ill-conceived Timbaland collaboration, Soundgarden’s legacy remains more or less firmly intact. While not as ahead of the curve as Nirvana or Sonic Youth, Soundgarden started out with more credibility than most acts swept up in the grunge tidal wave—their 1988 debut full-length, Ultramega OK, did come out on SST Records after all—and they managed to hang on to a decent amount of it before internal conflicts and industry frustrations finally did the band in in 1997. It’s unsurprising then that the group’s recent reunion and return to recording, which culminated in last year’s King Animal, has been hailed by fans and warmly received by critics; but in the end, even with a bit of momentum behind you, it’s rather hard to return to your heyday.

Obviously, the band members are quite a bit older than they used to be, as are their fans. Most of the enormous crowd packed into the Eagles Ballroom Friday night appeared mature enough to have seen the band in their original incarnation and some sported the tour T-shirts to prove it. They may not be able to thrash like they used to—there was nary a crowd-surfer in sight—but their enthusiasm is still intact; the amount of pre-show applause for an empty drum-set suggested they weren’t letting the high cost of libations at the venue slow them down too much. The cheering only got louder when the band, looking a bit gray but none the worse for wear, took the stage, and it didn’t subside for the duration of their two-and-a-half hour “An Evening With…” style performance.

“Been Away Too Long,” the lead-off track from King Animal, provided a rousing opener, as well as a winking reference to their nearly 20-year absence, and by the way people were singing along, it was clear they weren’t there simply for a greatest-hits nostalgia fest. Not that there wasn’t an element of that, too. All of the band’s most recognizable tunes (“Spoonman,” “Black Hole Sun,” etc.) were present and accounted for, but the band seemed to realize they were playing for their core fans and threw in plenty of deep cuts, including “Hunted Down” from their first EP. All the members have stayed busy since the breakup (drummer Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam), and were in fine form musically, seeming at home among the ten-ton riffs and psychedelic interludes. They struggled against a curiously flat-sounding mix, however, which clipped Cornell’s trademark wail and robbed a few songs which should have been standouts, like “Rusty Cage,” of much of their punch. The mix did less damage to quieter cuts like “Fell on Black Days” or “Blow Up the Outside World.”

Eagle-eyed Milwaukee music nerds may have spotted a familiar face watching from the wings, singer Dan Kubinski of Die Kreuzen, who knows a thing or two about high-profile reunions himself. His presence made sense. Die Kreuzen paved the way for Soundgarden in a rather direct sense, but, alas, any wishful thinking about a guest appearance came to naught. (Come on, don’t tell me Cornell and company don’t know “All White.”)

When a band of Soundgarden’s stature gets back together after so long, listeners tend to have either very high or very low expectations, but Friday’s show delivered results somewhere in between. It was solid through and through, well worth the price of admission—and really, that’s all that anyone should ask for. It’s a bit much to expect a full return to former glories, but reasonable to hope the band not tarnish its good name, and in the latter field, Soundgarden succeeded admirably.