The number of people dressed in black t-shirts was noticeable as far back as Federation Square, as the hordes of music fans made their way towards the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
Having witnessed Mariachi El Bronx two nights earlier at Billboard, it was fascinating to see the same musicians in their hard rock alter ego, The Bronx, already ripping the half-empty bowl a new one, at the very un-rock’n’roll time of 7PM.
The Bronx’s sound is high-energy, aggressive Californian rock, owing much to 1980’s U.S. punk and metal bands, such as Black Flag and Metallica. By comparison to his Monday night croon-heavy performance, frontman Matt Caughthran’s main job in this instance was to keep the crowd hyped and to scream in key, which he did very effectively. The songs were catchy as hell and the band were extremely tight, so it seemed a shame that they were on so early that most of the crowd were either still arriving or standing in ridiculously long bar queues.
It was also unfortunate that being an open air venue, there were the usual associated sound problems, which caused the reverberant snap of the snare drum to audibly smear, and the lead guitar was quite hard to discern from the rhythm. Nevertheless, The Bronx put on a great performance, with Caughthran making his way out into the seating area for the beginning of set closer “History’s Stranglers”, before jumping into the mosh pit for its duration.
It has been fifteen years since Soundgarden last visited Australia, appearing at the 1997 Big Day Out, the same festival that has been responsible for their return. And while last time they may have been on the cusp of breaking up, the reviews of the current tour have been unanimously glowing, and so expectations were high amongst both the long term fans and the ones too young to have witnessed the Seattle four piece the first time around.
Walking onstage with a casual wave and rock star swagger, Kim Thayill, Matt Cameron, Ben Shepherd and Chris Cornell, or ‘Lance’ as he later introduced himself (“my friends call me Lance”), launched straight into “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” from 1991’s breakthrough album, Badmotorfinger. It was immediately evident that, for whatever reason, the blurry sound problems audible during the support slot had been replaced with a fairly pristine sound quality, and also that Soundgarden were probably playing as well as ever.
The large moving light system and massive screen covering the back of the stage gave the show the stadium rock feel suited to a band of their proportion. The curtains regularly closed and reopened; with lighting and on-screen visuals changing specifically from track to track, even if they weren’t visually very exciting, being largely limited to the Badmotorfinger cover and a revolving eye.
The entire first half of the show was an onslaught of back-to-back hits and crowd favourites, with “Spoonman”, “Jesus Christ Pose”, and “The Day I Tried To Live” all making early appearances.
Interestingly, Cornell’s voice sounded noticeably worn by the years, with a very noticeable amount of delay being used in the mix to thicken his vocal, and at some points where once he screamed he now performed as more of a falsetto. This was a fairly minor point though, and did not take away from the overall sound, but was most noticeable during “Black Hole Sun”, the slowest, poppiest single the group ever released, and Cornell seemed to struggle to hit the notes.
Happily, during the second half of the set his voice grew stronger, perhaps having warmed up somewhat, and by the time the band reached the epic “4th of July” from 1994’s Superunknown, he was sounding at the top of his game.
Even amongst the most obvious of set choices there were surprises; “Jesus Christ Pose” seemed to lack some of the invigorated spirit and heaviness of the original recording, whereas, conversely, “Ty Cobb”, from 1997’s Down On the Upside, always seemed a little mindless on record but suddenly made sense in a live setting, as Cornell screamed out “hard headed, fuck you all!” and the crowd punched the air triumphantly.
The massive sing-a-long of “Burden in My Hand” sounded fantastic being sung by the entire crowd, and “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined”, performed as part of a four song Superunknown bracket, were also particular highlights.
It was interesting to note that while the period of time in which they became famous meant that Soundgarden has always been consigned to that media-created, catch-all genre of grunge, they are at their core a stoner rock band who aren’t so much about being heavy in a muscular rock sense, as they are about epic shoe gazing.
This was particularly evident by watching the audience’s reaction, which, beside the excitement caused at the start of each song when somebody’s favourite came on, mostly consisted of slow head banging rather than the more energetic moshing during The Bronx’s set.
Having gotten the hits out of the way, the thirty-minute encore was dedicated to some of the band’s early material, such as “Beyond the Wheel”, from 1988’s Ultramega OK, “I Awake” from 1989’s Louder Than Love and “Slaves and Bulldozers”, off Badmotorfinger. The latter ended the show, not with a bang but an epic stoner wash of guitar pedal drone, with each member of the band exiting one by one, beginning with Cameron and Shephard, leaving Cornell and Thayill to noodle with their guitar sounds.
It was a fitting end and a lesson to those who held preconceptions of the band based on knowledge of only their biggest hits, and a reaffirmation for the faithful fans that had waited so long to see their heroes return to our shores. As a consolation for the fifteen-year gap between visits, the fans were rewarded with a generous career spanning set that lasted for over two hours.