For someone going through the rock version of a mid-life crisis, Chris Cornell looked and sounded like a very relaxed and happy man at the Wiltern. There were even signs of maturity.
Of course, maturity is a relative notion. On his new album “Carry On” (Suretone/Interscope), former Soundgarden singer steers clear of bombast, crooning his way through a mixed bag of love songs that draw from the Beatles, classic Stax Records, and move soundtracks. It doesn’t quite work, but the attempt is admirable.
In concert though, the changes are more subtle. Performing a two-hour set that leaned heavily on Soundgarden, Cornell returned to his old haunted, shredded bray is back. But the performer who used to believe that baring his chest was the same as baring his soul kept his shirt on the entire show. He would pull on it every now and then (you don’t get to be a rock star of Cornell’s caliber without leaning how to be a tease), but his pecs remained covered the entire show.
In addition, the 40-year-old father no longer stalks the stage like a caged animal; while his tight, powerful quartet ground their way through the sludgy, Led Zeppelin riffs of Soundgarden’s “Let Me Drown,” “Spoonman,” and “Rusty Cage,” Cornell wandered around like a man doing a bed check; even more incongruous was the sight of him smiling while singing lyrics such as “Things aren’t looking so good.”
While he didn’t quite walk though those songs, he was much more emotionally invested in tunes such as “Finally Forever” a song written for his wedding (and one he admitted was getting it’s first public perf). Sung accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar, it was his most heartfelt vocal, but one that sent a good deal of the aud out to the lobby.
It also encapsulated Cornell’s quandary–it’s good to see him trying to find a style that suits his current station in life but until he finds a way to craft a live sound that reflects this, his perfs with come off as unsatisfying half-measures.
Cornell has figured out how to be effective while underplaying, something opener Juliette Lewis could stand to learn. Even after three albums and tours, her perf still feels like an actor’s workshopped idea of a “rock singer”: a manic, sweaty amalgam of Patti Smith and Mick Jagger. Every move is oversold, as if she’s playing Staples Center; it feels like another variation on the bad girl she played in “Natural Born Killers” and “Husbands and Wives.” Neither she or her blandly professional band are terrible — certainly no worse than the hundreds of other bands playing in bars around Los Angeles. Oddly, for an actress, the Licks have very little character.
Cornell and Juliette and the Licks play Gotham’s Beacon Theater July 31 and Aug. 1.