In the wake of the demise of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, two of the most popular American rock bands of the ’90s, the 2001 formation of Audioslave served not only to help fill the void but also help preserve the fading hard-rock genre, which continues to lose airplay and chart space to more modern stylings. In fact, Audioslave’s debut album was the most-played on U.S. rock radio in 2003.
Now, two years later, the L.A.-based band has returned with “Out of Exile” (in stores Tuesday), a much more cohesive and unified effort than the first album, which despite commercial success (3 million sold) smacked of hurried production. Vocalist Chris Cornell is in fine voice throughout, and his dynamic songwriting flavor, which failed to establish itself on the debut, is far more evident on the new material.
The new disc’s merits made Friday’s sold-out Wiltern show all the more disappointing. A San Diego show earlier in the week was canceled because of Cornell’s reported “vocal soreness,” and he clearly was still afflicted here. His voice sounded so rough, it’s easy to imagine he was advised to skip this show as well. However, he struggled valiantly through the 85-minute gig.
Having a guitar player as talented as Tom Morello aboard can help to overcome most obstacles; indeed, his six-string pyrotechnics repeatedly helped to salvage what often were otherwise lackluster perfs. (Surprisingly poor house sound this night didn’t help.)
“Like a Stone,” from the debut, and the new “Drown Me Slowly” were low points for Cornell but were saved by Morello’s fireworks. “Be Yourself,” the lead single from “Out of Exile,” has a catchy chorus but failed to connect with the crowd.
The quartet — which includes RATM alumni Tim Cummerford on bass and drummer Brad Wilke — also played hit songs by their previous bands, which they didn’t do during their first touring cycle; it proved a big hit with the Wiltern aud. (“We’re going to play what we want this time,” explained Cornell.)
Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” rolled with a fat groove not apparent on the original version, while an instrumental take on Rage’s “Bombtrack” segued into “Sleep Now in the Fire,” with Cornell sounding more like AC/DC’s Bon Scott than he did Zack de la Rocha.
Cornell saved his best for the encore, when he offered a solo perf of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” followed by the Temple of the Dog rarity “Call Me a Dog.” “Killing in the Name,” one of the earliest RATM hits, followed, and it was the show’s emotional highlight as Rage fans celebrated hearing the song played live after a four-year absence.