On the second night of its trio of Wiltern dates, a revitalized Soundgarden leveled the sold-out audience with an emphatic, two hour set that felt more like a resurrection than a nostalgic retrospective. Many of the group’s biggest hits were omitted — most conspicuously, the ubiquitous “Black Hole Sun” — but they were hardly missed, re-christening songs that may have passed with little fanfare during the band’s first go-round.
With its legacy somewhat obscured by the passage of time and the ever-growing mythology surrounding Kurt Cobain, Soundgarden has missed out on the critical deification that has elevated Nirvana to a sort-of untouchable strata in musical history. In fact, Nirvana is seemingly the only grunge band that most people remember when making a cursory appraisal of the era. This is perhaps understandable, considering the litany flannel-wearing posers that emerged from the Pacific Northwest in the early ’90s, but Soundgarden deserves — and seems to be finally receiving — its just due as a truly talented and innovative artistic force.
Opening with the doom-laden thud of “Nothing To Say” — an obscure track from the group’s debut EP “Screaming Life” — Soundgarden showcased a deliberately paced, distortion-laden motif that would maintain throughout the evening. Drummer Matt Cameron struck his kit with overwhelming force as guitarist Kim Thayil displayed a wonderfully-nuanced technical sensibility; channeling Sabbath, Zeppelin and Blue Cheer into an awe-inspiring psychedelic concoction. Forceful readings of “Outshined,” “Gun” and “Jesus Christ Pose” followed, with the latter benefiting from Cameron’s virtuosic, unrelenting drum performance. Singer Chris Cornell was in top form throughout the evening, utilizing his dexterous, husky vocal style to cut through the overwhelming cacophony created by the instruments.
Cornell is a rock frontman in the prototypical sense, delivering a combination of overt sexuality and devil-may-care attitude that is entirely captivating in the live setting. In his baggy white shirt and unkempt, grunge-era maine, Cornell cascaded across the stage, effortlessly tearing into his vocal chords for the bleeding, hypnotic refrains of “Get On the Snake,” “Drawing Flies” and “Blow Up The Outside World.” “Ty Cobb” provided a blast of mid-’80s hardcore while “Fell On Black Days” revealed the band’s more contemplative melodic capabilities. Often, Cornell’s persona has overshadowed the stunning power of his band, but on this evening, both forces seemed to work in perfect tandem.
The bluesy, rough-hewn strut of “Rowing” closed the 21-song set with a restrained fury; typical of the material found on the band’s 2012 reunion album “King Animal.” After the audience bellowed and applauded for a handful of minutes, the group returned for a three-song encore that ended with the stunning slow-burn of “Beyond the Wheel” — a composition that finds Cornell entering into an operatic blend of falsetto and chest voice that somehow works splendidly. Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd concluded the evening with a blistering drone of feedback that sent the audience home with ears ringing.
At a little over two hours, the concert ran a bit long for a band that purveys such a sonically abrasive brand of rock music. Still, the audience remained attentive and enthusiastic until the very last squall of feedback dissipated.