Matt Blackett: Soundgarden at the Bill Graham Civic July 21, 2011


I wasn’t sure I would ever see the day, but Soundgarden came back to the Bay Area last week, making legions of fans, old and new, really, really happy. The Bill Graham Civic was packed and throbbing as the Seattle boys took the stage, having been duly warmed up by the Mars Volta’s opening set. It was a powerful opener, with bright lights trained on the band as well as the crowd as the jangly strains of “Searching with My Good Eye Closed” blasted forth. Since the band last toured, both Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell have made some equipment changes, with Thayil using Mesa/Boogie Electra Dyne and Tremoverb amps and Cornell rocking Divided By 13. Those rigs, combined with a clean FOH mix, made for a super-crisp, tight band sound. The unison guitars blended well and when Cornell and Thayil played different parts, their guitars sounded distinct and complementary.

They launched into “Spoonman,” and every girl behind the bar took a break from selling beer to display her former (or current) professional dancer talents. This tune was the first glimpse of the band’s knack for making odd meters groove. It is downright amazing how they all can make tunes in 6, 7, and even alternating bars of 7 and 8 feel not only natural but also twice as heavy as songs in 4/4. Cornell gets a special mention due to the fact that he’s playing tricky parts and singing his ass off over those same beats. Damn, dude!

There were guitar highlights on pretty much every tune. “The Day I Tried to Live” rocked hard with all its creepy-cool chromatic movement and 7-against-8 cadence. It featured Thayil on a Gibson Firebird, Cornell on a Les Paul. “Fell on Black Days” had all the dynamics and punch of the studio version and more, with—once again—an uncommonly clear ensemble sound. Kudos to the soundperson for not smearing the whole mix with ridiculous amounts of low end. The subs were pumping, but not at the expense of the vocals, guitars, or even the bass (!). Very nice.

“Outshined” was one of the cooler tunes of the night, in spite of—or maybe because of—a meth-addled, ’roid-raging, Danny Bonaduce look-alike who felt the need to sing the verse right at me and then put me in a headlock for the chorus. (He really likes that song.) Being outmatched, overpowered, and apparently outshined, I couldn’t really fight back so I mustered a feeble, Borat-style thumbs up to let him know how cool I thought his assaultive appreciation of the band was and he let me go after a minute. Thanks, Power Child Dude! Stay classy.

I regained my composure to the soothing sounds of “Nothing to Say.” The band had a great mix of crowd pleasers like “Black Hole Sun,” and “My Wave” as well as lesser-known gems like “Drawing Flies,” “4th of July,” and “Slaves & Bulldozers.” It was obvious that Soundgarden is the all-time favorite band for many, if not most, of the people in attendance and it’s not hard to understand why. They have an uncanny ability to craft catchy, hypnotic, heavy riffs out of seemingly simple lines. More than almost any other band, they can take three notes of a pentatonic scale, play them in some screwy odd meter, and turn your head around. Especially if one of their fanatical fans is literally turning your head around while they do it.

Here is their performance of “Outshined” at the BGC. If you listen carefully, you can hear a terrified Matt Blackett screaming, “It’s cool, man! It’s cool!”

So now you know.