Soundgarden @ O2 Academy, Birmingham – 14 September 2013

One of the forefathers of the legendary Seattle alternative rock scene in the 90’s, Soundgarden released ‘King Animal’, their sixth studio album and their first in 15 years, to widespread critical acclaim in November 2012.

Tonight is one of a handful of UK shows to follow the band’s high profile return to European stages last summer. I’ve always been a fan of what Soundgarden do – so having not seen them before, I’ve been looking forward to this.

As the intro plays, a roar goes up to greet the arrival of each band member on stage. Matt Cameron takes his drum stool before guitarist Kim Thayil and man-mountain bassist Ben Shepherd join him. Inevitably, the loudest noise is made for frontman Chris Cornell, who – for the pleasure of ladies and annoyance of many other 49 year old men – has maintained his devilishly handsome and youthful looks.

Kicking off with two tracks from the band’s masterpiece 1994 breakout album ‘Superunknown’, sends the Brummy fans into ecstasy. ‘Let Me Drown’ and the ever popular ‘Spoonman’ are fantastic openers, before ‘By Crooked Steps’ – from the recent album release – stands up pretty well alongside them.

All three songs give an early insight into Cornell’s raspy and emotion-laced vocal technique, which I’m relieved to say – after reading reports to the contrary – continues to pack the same punch as it always has done on record. The guy still has his powerful range, sometimes soulful, sometimes aggressive – it really is impressive to hear in the live environment.

Cornell talks about previous good times had in Birmingham, and friends the band have here, going on to say that Kim suggested the band write a song about them. Clearly, the same pep talk could be given to any audience, anywhere in the world, but the heart-felt delivery works well in declaring the band’s appreciation for being accepted back into the fold.

The track itself – ‘Been Away Too Long’ the first single from ‘King Animal’ – is as infectious and incendiary as the band’s best fare, with the heavy snarl of Kim Thayil’s riff, Cameron and Shepherd’s steamrolling rhythm and Cornell’s haunting key chorus line: “I’ve been away for too long!” It’s fair to say, only four tracks in, the house is in total agreement.

Tonight’s set, which the band change every night, is a good mix of the old and the new. The next three tracks are a perfect example, with the recent ‘Worse Dreams’ to the classic ‘My Wave’, way on back to ‘Get on the Snake’ – which Cornell introduces with the recollection of times when the band toured the world in the back of a van.

‘Black Hole Sun’ is a classic tune of sedate melody and gargantuan guitar riffage, it’s probably ‘the’ song which everybody wants to hear at a Soundgarden gig. Unfortunately, tonight it is a little disappointing – as the usually pleasant, psychedelic guitar in the verse, is all over the place. Saying that – nobody seems to mind, so perhaps I’m just being picky.

The previously never played live ‘Blind Dogs’ is followed by the likes of ‘Fell On Black Days’ and ‘Blow Up The Outside World’, taking us to the end of a magnificent set-list – when something quite strange occurs. For what I can only assume is for technical reasons – bass player Ben Shepherd, takes off his bass, hands it to somebody in front of stage, and walks off. This leaves the rest of the band to play ‘Rusty Cage’ without him, while a bunch of techs surround his rig for a period of the song.

All returning to stage for the encore, there comes two songs from the 1991 album ‘Badmotorfinger’. Defining the essence of Soundgarden is the pure assault of the senses that is ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, followed by ‘Slaves and Bulldozers’.  The gig is completed with Thayil and Shepherd left to create as much feedback as possible. It’s a truly deafening, but a proper rock ‘n’ roll ending to the show.

With Cornell’s solo commitments and Cameron being the drummer for some other band called Pearl Jam(!) it’s not certain if/when Soundgarden will be around again. Cornell has certainly not ruled out the line-up continuing to make more music, so if they do return to the UK – consider carefully whether you should ignore the opportunity to go see these Seattle masters at work.

Review & Photography: Steve Johnston