With turrets of light bathing the stage in purple, the opening strains of "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" set the stage perfectly for the entrance of Soundgarden. It certainly felt like these guys believed in their music again, and as one of the band's best (and signature) songs came to a close, bassist Ben Shepherd held his instrument aloft while still laying down the deep grooves that are an often-overlooked element of the band's music.
Chris Cornell regularly engaged the audience with gracious and intentionally silly banter, including one part of the show where he got the crowd to scream so that he could hear the sound amplifying off the walls to the stage, commenting that it was trippy. "Jesus Christ Pose" seemed even more harrowing and scary-sounding than the original -- which seemed almost like a noise rock track on Badmotorfinger.
Thayil's guitar throughout seemed to have the ability to sear through in the upper registers while simultaneously ripping through the low end. Pretty much every song most fans of Soundgarden ever wanted to hear found a place in the 23-song set. And as the show went on, it seemed as though the guys were feeding off the energy of a crowd, who was very much into the show and seemed to know the words to every song, so much so that Cornell often held his mike to the audience during choruses.
Before performing "Big Dumb Sex," Cornell said the band had written to song to "make fun of the some of the same people who ended up liking it." Hilarious and true. Cameron's drum intro on "Rusty Cage" was so ferocious and heavy, it was almost hard to believe we were getting to see something like that -- and even more so when the whole band joined in. "Nothing To Say" was as impressively heavy as ever, and Soundgarden didn't skimp on the early material as the main set ended with the noisy and distorted "Beyond the Wheel."
Kicking off its encore with "Hunted Down," another early track, the band seemed to be very in-the-moment through to the end of its closing number, a frenzied and warped rendition of "Slaves and Bulldozers," which made the studio version seem tame by comparison with Thayil and Shepherd making a razory cacophony and drone to end the show with an incandescent sonic glow. Hopefully these guys realize this show felt like something special.
Click through for review of the Mars Volta, setlist and Critic's Notebook.
Earlier in the evening, when the Mars Volta strode on to stage, Cedric Bixler-Zavala was almost unrecognizable, with his hair shortened and sans sunglasses, but his soaring, captivating vocals were unmistakable. The five-piece band (minus Ikey Owens) managed to create an atmosphere of its own beyond that of the setting, which didn't hurt with the dusk sky of Denver behind the stage.
Opening with a new song, which contained lines like, "a smelter pile made by the debt collector," let us know the band hasn't exactly mellowed on its politics -- which was certainly welcome. The entire 45-minute-or-so set, which comprised new or relatively new material, found Bixler-Zavala evoking Alan Vega in his Suicide heyday, doing his best Elvis Presley -- brooding, theatrical, intense and compellingly energetic. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, meanwhile, swung the guitar around in great arcs and in time with the music, seeming to rip out blistering, echoing guitar riffs like a haunted blues played in the wake of the apocalypse.
Coupled with a rhythm section able to flex and stretch out with the tides of emotion expressed in guitar and vocals, Volta's set would have been worth seeing this night alone. It's rare that a band of that level of fame still continues to push itself into so many interesting directions not just sonically but in the content of its lyrics.
Personal Bias: I've been wanting to see Soundgarden since the late '80s. Random Detail: Saw Garrett Shavlik of the Fluid at the show and ran into Orie Bender of the Purple Fluid. By the Way: The Mars Volta shirts were really cool.
Soundgarden 07.18.11 - Red Rocks Amphitheatre Morrison, CO
01. Searching With My Good Eye Closed 02. Spoonman 03. Let Me Drown 04. Jesus Christ Pose 05. Blow Up the Outside World 06. The Day I Tried to Live 07. My Wave 08. Fell On Black Days 09. Loud Love 10. Big Dumb Sex 11. Outshined 12. Nothing To Say 13. Rusy Cage 14. Black Hole Sun 15. Burden In My hand 16. Pretty Noose 17. Superunknown 18. 4th of July 19. Beyond the Wheel
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20. Hunted Down 21. Face Pollution 22. Mailman 23. Slaves and Bulldozers