Casual was the byword for Chris Cornell’s solo acoustic turn at the Troubadour Friday night. The Soundgarden frontman sauntered onto the stage without fanfare, took his place on a stool surrounded by guitars (and a red phone, which he explained was supposed to be connected so fans could call and make requests, but “the technology’s not quite there yet”), picked one up and launched into a distinctly folky rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding.”
he rest of his 90-minute set (with no encore) continued in that vein — the evening felt like a palate cleanser between last year’s ambitious, if ill-advised, Timbaland-produced solo album and the recently announced Soundgarden reunion. He greeted a few fans he recognized from December’s show at the Hotel Café, occasionally forgot lyrics or started tunes in the wrong key, and introduced the songs–which ran the gamut from Soundgarden, Audioslave and his solo work to covers of Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles — with avuncular anecdotes.
The performances represented a mixed bag. Cornell is only a serviceable guitarist, and the success of the songs depended on how well he could drape his powerful, serrated growl around the melodies. “Black Hole Sun” worked surprisingly well in this format, taking on an elastic delicacy that was unexpectedly reminiscent of Nick Drake; “When I’m Down” (performed with Dennis Hamm on piano) had a keening, torchy bluesiness; and his cover of Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” was tersely desolate. He gave these songs a sense of intimate, relaxed urgency.
But other times, Cornell’s performed with a slack dolor that wasn’t too far removed from what you might hear on a subway platform or an open mike night. “Finally Forever,” a heartfelt love song to his wife, was probably the worst offender; contentment does not sit comfortably on Cornell.
The evening appeared to reach its nadir when Cornell dipped into the Beatles’ catalog. His voice is simply not suited for “A Day In the Life” or “Imagine”; his performances brought nothing new to either song. And when he started “Ticket To Ride,” it felt like a star’s self-indulgence. But he managed to make something of it: for the “my baby don’t care” coda, he looped the song’s signature riff, layered a descending guitar figure over it and went deep, turning the original’s blithe repetition into a painful howl of emotional abandonment. It was the evening’s most compelling and adventurous music. It was also the closest he came to Soundgarden.