The first California date of Soundgarden’s “The Days I Tried to Live” tour, on the campus of San Jose State University, not only lived up to the promise of the band’s new, former No. 1 A&M album, “Superunknown,” but showed the Seattle quartet at the absolute peak of its musical game.
Performing nearly all of the songs from the new album, as well as most of 1991’s “Badmotorfinger,” Soundgarden displayed a previously unrevealed awareness of concert dynamics, pacing and, most notably, an intensely focused cohesion that leaves the group almost without peer in the alternative/hard-rock genre.
The most obvious improvement in the band is singer Chris Cornell’s newfound vocal control. Where he once was prone to bombastic falsettos without regard to context, the 32-year-old now performs with a potently effective restraint, going to his bag of voice tricks only when necessary. On “Like Suicide” and, particularly, new single “Black Hole Sun,” Cornell even showed a tender side.
Soundgarden’s rhythm section, composed of drummer Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd, an otherwise restrained player who wears his bass lower than anyone since Sid Vicious and who plays his instrument as if he’s pulling teeth from an uncooperative bull, formed a brilliant foundation throughout. At times the two laid down independent grooves that meshed together in soaring, often unexpected ways.
The band, which arrives in L.A. in mid-July, played for nearly two hours on a simply arranged stage, without spotlights, designed to keep audience attention squarely on the musicians. Openers “Jesus Christ Pose” and recent hit “Spoonman” were accompanied by eerie video images.
Song highlights were many. The controlled chaos of “Slaves and Bulldozers,” Cornell’s solo turn on mournful “Mind Riot,” guitarist Kim Thayil’s fleet fretboard work on “Superunknown,” the Black Sabbath-like “Mailman” and “Let Me Drown,” all stood out.
It seemed for a time that Soundgarden was going to remain the forgotten piece of the Seattle scene’s puzzle. But with the studio triumph of the “Superunknown” album and the majestic, riveting power evident on the band’s current tour, Soundgarden has, at long last, proven that its piece of that puzzle is the most important one of all.