So the Chris Cornell tribute concert took place on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
The show was huge, with an array of high-profile performers and acts coming together to pay tribute to the late musical icon whose death in May 2017 is still reverberating across music fandom.
I wasn’t originally going to write about this event: but I had such a strong reaction to it and had so many mental notes that I figured I should. I’ve been such a deep fan of Chris Cornell for so long that it seemed silly to not react in writing.
Among those involved in the ‘I Am the Highway‘ event were Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters, Peter Frampton, Metallica and others: but also a lot of less-than-obvious performers, ranging from Miley Cyrus to Rita Wilson – which is a hell of a pendulum swing.
The show also didn’t try to scale down: it went on for five hours and turned out to be an enormous affair. I had known this event was on the horizon for a long time: but I somehow lost track of it until the night it was happening. I wasn’t sure exactly what this show was going to be, how it would feel to watch, what kind of tone would be found and whether it would generally go down well.
Something like this could be awkward or misfiring in bad circumstances.
And there were suspicions from some sections of the fans that this was going to end up being an overly ‘Hollywood’ event, disconnected from Cornell’s roots or the Seattle scene. I’ll address some of that at the end when I talk about Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and address some of the division that now exists among Cornell’s fans.
I don’t want to get into any of the conspiracy-theory side of things here: even though people have asked me to before (or have asked why I haven’t). Again, when I talk about Gossard, some of that will get touched on by default. But I really just want to talk about the music at this point.
And, in the final equation, things actually seemed to come together really well. I kept abreast of its progress on Wednesday night, and then I watched most of the online coverage of it on Thursday evening – which was an emotional experience, especially the way it ended.
There’s a lot of details to keep track of, and a lot of different names and performers to mention: and so I’m not going to try to cover the whole event. I just want to put down some notes from an overview of the five hours: and then focus on three main issues, these being (1) the FINAL appearance of Soundgarden, (2) the ending (oh my god, the ending), and (3) Stone Gossard‘s actions, his speech and some of what I read into it.
First up, I’ll just say it – this event was far better, far more poignant, than I had expected it to be. And I really give credit to those who put it together and made the big decisions: because some of the decision-making seems to have been really spot-on.
In particular, the way the event ended – the climaxe it built to in the final hour-and-a-half or so really found a spirit and a feeling that I didn’t think it would. When I said ‘the most beautiful final act’ in the title, I’m specifically talking about the very last nine minutes – which I’ll get to in due course, because I could frankly write an entire article on just those nine minutes.
Were there things that maybe didn’t hit the best note? Probably. In a five-hour event, that’s inevitable. But a lot of people criticising performances or performers online are kind of missing the point: this wasn’t supposed to be about showmanship or flawless execution, but a tribute. A lot of people were stepping out of their comfort zones to take part in this: to critique any of them seems churlish.
And, besides that, there were actually very few misfiring or poor performances. And, just straight off the bat here, I was blown away by what Miley Cyrus did – and I never thought I’d ever say such words.
Apparently, the show even occured during the midst of a dramatic thunderstorm in L.A – which somehow seems fitting (maybe ‘Black Rain’ should’ve been blaring over the system as things were starting: or maybe the big monitor should’ve been showing the epic, fiery storm from the end of the ‘Black Hole Sun’ video).
I’m glad that some of the more obvious and fitting contributors were there: it would’ve been weird to not have the members of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave be central in this. They, in fact, were afforded ample stage time: and the finale was all Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog.
This was in fact the first time Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd had performed together since that sad, horrible night of May 19th 2017 in which Soundgarden had played their last show at the Detroit Fox Theater on the same night that they would lose Cornell hours later.
The events of that night still feel so recent and so raw: and I almost didn’t watch this coverage for that reason. But I’m glad I did.
While I wouldn’t say it brings any kind of ‘closure’ necessarily, it does feel like the kind of celebration/tribute that has been missing in the year-and-a-half since Cornell’s passing, even if we couldn’t necessarily put our finger on it: something to really reconnect with the spirit and legacy of Cornell in a way that could feel more communal, more (strangely) life-affirming and more focused squarely on his music rather than the bitter taste or the harrowing details or questions about his end.
Also, there’s some fitting, poignant symmetry in a lot of this: as, for example, Cornell played a key role in the Mad Season 20th anniversary show a few years ago, standing in for his deceased friend Layne Staley. So a lot of this feels like a full circle closing in on itself: and like there are poetic and non-linear dynamics in play.
What really surprised me about the way this huge show was structured was how perfect the order of events was: to start with the most iconic, grassroots characters of the Pacific North-West scene and the late-eighties/early-nineties wave (The Melvins) and then to have hours of performances reflecting the breadth of Cornell’s prolific career, and then to close with a Temple of the Dog set and then finally a Soundgarden set – was absolutely the most perfect thing that could’ve been done.
Having Buzz Osbourne and co open this show is something I found unexpected and yet so perfect, serving also to ground Cornell’s memory back in the origins of the Pacific North-West scene and the oddball and distinctly non-commercial roots that Soundgarden and the Melvins shared. Osbourne appeared in a frock and the Melvins set included the iconic Soundgarden single ‘Spoonman’ from Superunknown.
I’m not sure there could’ve been a better opening act: and the fact that they brought Osbourne back at the end to play with Soundgarden felt like a perfect closed circle.
And there were some interesting choices here, across the evening: ‘No Attention’ from Down On the Upside as a cover choice for Foo Fighters was unexpected, but fits perfectly with the FF style.
Tom Morello essentially also reformed Audioslave for this occassion; but the real surprise was the diversity of people he brought in to front the songs, including Perry Farrell (Janes Addiction and Porno For Pyros) and the actress Juliette Lewis.
There was some odder artists on the bill too. I’m no Maroon 5 fan, but Adam Levine managed a really good rendition of Cornell’s haunting ‘Seasons’: it probably helped that Stone Gossard was backing him on guitar. If you closed your eyes for a couple of moments there, you would almost think it was Cornell.
The extraordinary thing is that the standout performance of the night came from the least expected source: specifically Miley Cyrus. Her handling of ‘Say Hello to Heaven’ (from Temple of the Dog) was extraordinary: she absolutely killed it.
Backed by Gossard, Matt Cameron and Temple of the Dog, she put everything she had into that vocal performance and I was stunned by how stirring it was. I didn’t think that song could really be covered convincingly by anyone.
It seems to me that Miley Cyrus is in the wrong career/genre – she shouldn’t be a pop princess at all, but fronting a full musical outfit.
Brandi Carlile fronting ‘Like a Stone’ for Audioslave was an emotional high-point: her vocal performance wasn’t necessarily outstanding, but there was something palpable in the feeling and spirit that that song evoked. It was also the fact that she got much of the crowd to sing the chorus at the end – which was, as far as I can tell, the only time in the whole five hours that this happened.
Also on the Audioslave front, Perry Farrell didn’t seem like he was physically up to ‘Cochise’, but Dave Grohl made a truly valiant attempt to do justice to ‘Show Me How to Live’: seriously, Grohl’s throat looked like it was about to explode on those choruses.
But actually this highlights, as many of the vocal performances did, how impossible it is to sing like Cornell and reach those notes or find that power. Grohl in general has a hell of a set of lungs on him, but even he struggled with those choruses: he gets fifty out of ten for sheer commitment and effort though – I’m not sure anyone alive could properly pull of the ‘Show How Me How To Live’ choruses.
And this is actually a significant point: I feel like there’s a reason a lot of female singers were called on for this. Each of them probably wanted to pay tribute anyway, but a lot of those Cornell vocal performances can’t be replicated by a male singer – very talented female vocalists tend to have a better chance of reaching that range. Again, it’s a shock to me what Miley Cyrus gave the vocal performance of the night – but it also kind of makes sense that she could channel ‘Say Hello to Heaven’ in the way she did.
Likewise, Nikki Costa did great justice to ‘Preaching the End of the World’ (backed by Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron and a full band): and likewise with ‘Reach Down’ (with Miguel also sharing vocals – and with full Temple of the Dog backing, including Jeff Ament).
This rendition of ‘Reach Down’ was a show higlight, sounding even more like an impassioned piece of gospel choir music than it did on the original Temple of the Dog album. What was striking about this song in particular was that religious-feeling tone that created the feeling that something (or someone) was really being celebrated in a very spiritual way.
Fiona Apple performing with Temple of the Dog for ‘All Night Thing’ seemed very, very fitting, and Peter Frampton being invovled in ‘Black Hole Sun’ seems like something that would’ve brought a smile to Cornell’s face.
There were other performers too: but I’m really just picking out things that particularly caught my attention, so forgive me if I’m missing a bunch of people out.
There are some surprising song choices too. Any number of Soundgarden ‘classics’ were absent (for such a long show, it’s interesting there was no ‘Blow Up the Outside World’, ‘Burden in My Hand’, ‘Limo Wreck’, ‘Mind Riot’, ‘Black Rain’, etc), while a number of less obvious Soundgarden numbers from their vast discography showed up: William DuVall and Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains‘ take on early Soundgarden like ‘Hunted Down’ is really cool, because you know Cantrell was probably hearing a song like that live a couple of dozen times back in the days when AiC and Soundgarden were playing the same clubs all the time.
In fact, I saw DuVall say in an interview that Cantrell had chosen ‘Hunted Down’ because he already knew how to play it.
Cornell’s daughter Toni also took the stage, performing a version of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ with Ziggy Marley (replicating a well-known duet of the same song she once did with her father). It was a moving performance, but actually what I found even more poignant was Stone Gossard’s brief speech on his friend Cornell and his decision to bring Cornell’s daughter (from his first marriage) onto the stage to talk about her father. Lily Cornell didn’t speak for long, but both her presence and Gossard’s sentiments were one of the most poignant things.
I’m going to circle back to Stone Gossard in a moment.
Gossard also highlighted one of the key things about Cornell, which was the extent to which he was the catalyst for so much of what happened in music at that time and beyond: Gossard called him “our leader”, which was a more poetic and succinct way of expressing what I was also trying to get at in an article after Cornell’s passing, specifically that Cornell – more than anyone else – seemed to be the gravitational center for most of what was going on.
That covers most of my notes on the general event and the performances.
Finally – and I’ve saved this for last – there’s Soundgarden. Now, I’m really going to wax lyrical about the final ‘outro’/ending, but first let me just say something about the set.
Again, the decision to save Soundgarden entirely for the finale was perfect. After all of this diversity of catalogue and performers, we finish with almost an hour of one of the greatest acts in the history of recorded music: and what is, we have to assume, the last time these guys will ever play on a stage together.
Not only is this probably the last time those guys will ever perform Soundgarden material on a stage: it’s also the first time they’ve done so since that horrible night a year-and-a-half ago in Detroit. I read, in fact, that the reason this whole concert was delayed so long is because Kim, Ben and Matt were just not emotionally ready to be able to play together without Cornell (something Cameron aluded to at the start of this event too).
And they went with an unassailable set, opening with ‘Rusty Cage’ (Josh Homme had done the Johnny Cash version of ‘Rusty Cage’ earlier, but most people want to hear this proper SG version). Landmark songs like ‘Outshined’ and ‘Loud Love’ also appeared, but so did less obvious songs to properly reflect the scope of SG, including ‘Flower’ and ‘Drawing Flies’.
The two closing songs – to end this mammoth event, but also probably the final two songs to ever be performed by Soundgarden – were absolute perfect choices: ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ and ‘Black Hole Sun’.
‘The Day I Tried to Live’ might be my absolute favorite piece of popular music by anyone ever: and ‘Black Hole Sun’ just somehow felt like it would be an inevitable choice. Both were electrifying. Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins did the best vocal performance he could for ‘Day I Tried to Live’ (no one can do it like Cornell, but he made a valiant effort – and was totally self-deprecating about his shortcomings).
Honestly, I was surprised to see ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ make it on to the set, because of the perceived nature of the lyrics: but it’s great that they chose it. It’s also really nice that they brought Buzz Osbourne back to play on this song too.
Tom Morello and a number of the night’s other key musicians also came on with Soundgarden for these various songs – again, there were so many people involved across the five hours that I can’t keep track of every name.
‘Black Hole Sun’ was the end. But actually there was also the end of the end: for some nine minutes or so, there are no songs or structure, but Soundgarden – and Soundgarden alone now – remained on stage, creating what I can only describe as an otherworldly symphony of dissonance.
And this, for me, was the most powerful, poignant moment of the entire event.
It’s really hard to explain exactly what this was: it’s like a loosely coordinated symphony of electro magnetic feedback. Soundgarden commonly ended their shows like this – but there was something that felt very different this time, no doubt largely because of the occasion and the context.
But I really want to talk about this: and I don’t care if it makes me sound like a pretentious ass. I’ve put the video of it below: so that it’s clear what I’m talking about.
It is one of the most extraordinary, hautingly beautiful extensions of sound I have ever heard in my life. Somehow, in its apparent discordant nature it actually acquires a kind of transcendent poetry and beauty. It doesn’t even feel like music: it feels like some kind of natural (or supernatural) phenonemon caused by magnetic forces, like some sudden expression of emotion from the cosmos (the harmony of the spheres, maybe, or some kind of heavenly resonance frequency). It lingers and then mutates, changes shape, like a sonic equivalent of the Aurora Borealis, and it just keeping going, like some short-lived being playing out its existence.
It feels somehow mournful and life-affirming at the same time: but it is a mesmerising, even spiritual-feeling, experience.
And it is a sublime, stunning way to finish. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finale to a show as hauntingly compelling as this anywhere.
I can’t really even tell precisely what mixture of sources is producing or sustaining the sounds (most of it is guitar/amp feedback, but bits of it feel like something more substantial or coordinated) – and I kind of don’t want to know. I kind of prefer to be mesmerised and just think it’s some kind of mysterious force of nature.
Like it might even be the cosmic force giving the occasion its own sonic contribution. That probably sounds stupid or hippy-dippy. But I’m talking about what that finale feels like or evokes.
And when Kim Thayil plugs in Cornell’s guitar to an amp and allows it to feedback and reverberate as part of the mutating soundscape, all thoughts or memories of the preceding five hours fade away and you’re just focused on that moment, that space and that sound.
And, moreover, watching those men standing there for those minutes, sustaining this extraordinary sea, cloud or mist of beguiling sound is – presumably – both the final act of Soundgarden and their goodbye to the man who isn’t here anymore.
I just got goosebumps all over again, just from typing that sentence.
But I heard someone else describe the sight and sound of it as being like ancient warriors performing some mystic funerary rite to see off their fallen chief. That’s a really good description.
And if Chris Cornell’s spirit, consciousness or echo hadn’t been in or near the L.A Forum that night, you feel it certainly would’ve been drawn there at that point and to that sonic beacon for those last minutes.
Honestly, if the whole rest of the event had been poor or lackluster (and it wasn’t: most of it was really good), just this finale alone – just for this moment to exist – would’ve entirely justified everything else.
I’m glad this happened, for those reasons: and for the various reasons highlighted in the rest of this article.
It’s difficult not to think this was a fitting, suitably epic event to remember not only Cornell’s prodigious musical output, but to show how towering and powerful an artistic figure he was, how much of a presence he was and how much of a legacy he has.
This thing went on for five hours or more: it feels like a celebration rather than a mournful goodbye – which is a good thing, and which is probably why it might actually have been better that it happened this much time after Cornell’s passing. Thinking about it now, the timing has probably been perfect.
Only two things niggled at me. One was the absence of Eddie Vedder. The other is less of an issue, but more of an afterthought: which is that I saw Norah Jones do an absolutely haunting, beautiful piano-led rendition of ‘Black Hole Sun’ in tribute to Cornell: she literally did it at the Fox Theater, Detroit, and it was incredibly moving. So I’m surprised no one asked her to try to do the same thing again here; or maybe they did and she declined.
Or maybe the poignancy would’ve been diminished in a repeat performance. Just in case no one’s ever seen it though, I’m sharing the YouTube video of Norah’s version of ‘Black Hole Sun’ at the end of this post. It really is a stunning, stripped down rendition: and it breaks my heart every time.
In a strange way, I still think I’m more moved by Jones’s spur-of-the-moment piano rendition than by this entire enormous event: but that’s no slight against ‘I Am the Highway’ at all. Norah’s tribute probably struck home differently because it was so intimate and because of where it was happening and when (at the Fox Theater, I think one week after Cornell died).
Something else that occurred to me, rather bittersweetly, is how many other deceased artists would’ve – in theory – been first in line to pay tribute to Chris Cornell, were they still here to do so. Obviously, Chester Bennington comes immediately to mind: I could entirely see him doing ‘Hunger Strike’ (maybe even with Vedder). But I was even thinking about all those others from further back, like Chris’s friend Jeff Buckley or like Layne. Man, even Kurt would’ve probably rocked out a version of ‘Outshined’.
But it just reminds you of how much Cornell was at the heart of everything and how much he not only created so much incredible music himself, but also had so much to do with so many of the greatest artists and music that came out of that extraordinary period in time.
Again, with the likes of the Melvins, Cantrell, Gossard and Ament, Grohl, and of course Thayil, Cameron and Shepherd all involved, in some ways this almost felt like it was paying tribute not just to Cornell, but to that entire musical generation and scene (when ‘Hunted Down’ was being performed, members of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were all on stage: it was Alice in the Temple of Pearl Garden) – but firmly in relation to Cornell himself of course, who was a towering figure and influence in it and who was arguably its godfather (or as Gossard put it, “our leader”).
I don’t really have any criticisms: and, given what this was, even I did have criticisms I probably wouldn’t voice them here. I’ve seen criticisms online and in comments-sections: but, really, this just seems to be missing the point and the spirit of this event.
If anything, my main critique would have nothing to do with the performances or the show, but would be about the crowd.
I’m not the only person to have noticed muted reaction or even lack of reaction at various key points, as if half the audience didn’t even recognise most of the songs. You half suspect that a lot of those in attendance weren’t necessarily great Cornell fans, but just people who wanted to be at the week’s big event or to get to see celebrities like Brad Pitt. This being Los Angeles (some people have asked why this wasn’t organised in Seattle), it wouldn’t be surprising if there were a lot of socialites and event-enthusiasts there and not as many proper music fans or people who know and appreciate Cornell’s body of work.
That’s unfortunate: and I guess it sticks in the guts of a lot true fans who were never going to be able to get tickets or make it to L.A. But such is life.
And I also shouldn’t knock the crowd too much either: given that all the money from tickets is going to charity.
Some purists might be uncomfortable with the ‘star-studded’ nature of things or with the celebrity appearances (including Brad Pitt, Josh Brolin, Jack Black and others): but, really, given that they had the Melvins open the show, it’s fair to say they actually got a good balance, reflecting the fullness of Cornell’s career – and he was friends with guys like Brad Pitt, so it really shouldn’t be seen as any kind of departure.
And, frankly, when else are you going to get to see Miley Cyrus on stage with Stone Gossard – and Gossard seeing her off with a reciprocal F-bomb?
Some fans get a bit too puritanical about Cornell’s roots: but he had a long and diverse career, had friends and connections in different places, and what this show did really nicely was to reflect all of that, so that we got renditions of his solo material, his later work, and his early work, and we got appearances from people reflecting the full scope of Cornell’s relationships.
My nitpick (actually more of an observation than a complaint) would be that Down on the Upside (a monumental album in its own right) wasn’t really represented: across five hours, I’m not sure a single song from that album was performed (not even tracks as well-known as ‘Blow Up the Outside World’ or ‘Burden in my Hand’). There was also no representation for Soundgarden’s final album, King Animal: I could’ve really imagined a poignant rendition of something like ‘Bones of Birds’.
But again, that’s just me being nitpicky and fan-boyish.
Others will be critical or sceptical based on a dislike of Vicky Karyanis.
On this, I might partly agree. I also, like a lot of people, have uneasy feelings about Vicky Karyanis – who organised this event. I have uneasy feelings about some people’s motives, regarding both this and various other things in the wake of Cornell’s death.
I don’t really want to get drawn here into the divisive element that has sprung up in the fan-base since Cornell’s passing: centering on the conspiracy theories and suspicions. I’ve said elsewhere here before that I’m entirely 50/50 undecided about what I really think about all that stuff (although I acknowledge that the suspicions and questions about how Cornell really died are entirely valid) – and that, even if I explore it more in the future, now isn’t the time.
However, there was one moment on Wednesday evening that seemed to me to play into that very briefly: and I’m going to acknowledge that here.
There are, as mentioned earlier, perceptions that Vicky and her clique had been isolating Cornell from his older friends (and family – his first wife Susan Silver and their daugther Lily) and that this might’ve also extended to people like Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready. That could explain Vedder’s absence. I also, for that reason, didn’t expect to see Lily show up – and was even surprised that Gossard and Ament came to perform too.
That being said, you couldn’t have done the Temple of the Dog material without Gossard and Ament – so maybe they felt duty-bound to take part so that the show could happen at all (and in a way that perhaps Vedder didn’t).
I’m just speculating – and actually I’m getting sidetracked here. But you could watch Gossard’s heartfelt speech and perhaps think that he seemed a little uncomfortable. The fact that it was he who brought on Lily Cornell suggests to me that her presence was his doing: and that perhaps Gossard actually had to fight for Lily to be allowed on stage.
If so – and again, I’m only speculating – then Stone Gossard as a human being would go even higher up in my estimation than he already was.
In a way, that’s also what felt especially poignant about Gossard’s on-stage statements. It really looked to me like Lily was uncomfortable about being present – and her words were very brief. But the way she hugged Stone really suggested to me that he was the one looking out for her in this situation. And it felt like Gossard was – in a subtle, tasteful way – making some kind of gesture against Karyanis and the Hollywood crowd and some kind of defense of Cornell’s earlier family.
The fact that he mentioned Susan Silver by name, as well as Eddie and Mike, seems like a very deliberate gesture: to my mind (and again, it could just be my misreading), he seemed to be trying to shift some of the focus away from L.A, Hollywood, the celebrity element, Karyanis and co, and remind everyone of the people who might’ve otherwise been written out of the occassion.
Again, my estimation of Gossard as a person has raised even higher than it already was.
On that note, Vedder’s absence was conspicuous: just because we so expect him to be there, perhaps more than any other performer. I wonder if it was just too much for him: or whether someone involved in putting this show together has had a falling out with Vedder or some reason to exclude him. I don’t know. But Vedder’s absence was very noticeable, particularly when ‘Hunger Strike’ came around.
All of that being said, given how well structured and how genuinely moving this event was, it’s difficult to be critical of anyone, including Karyanis.
At the end of the day, whoever was ultimately calling the shots, aforementioned decisions like having the Melvins open or having the final 90 minutes or so be entirely Temple of the Dog and Soundgarden, make it clear that the organisers and decision-makers knew exactly what would make the most sense.
It’s just a shame that much of the audience in attendance seemed to get a lot less out of it than the majority of fans watching online from around the world probably did.
In the end, the balance was right: and the diversity of the performers reflected the diversity of Chris Cornell’s career and impact. I tend to think Cornell would enjoy watching such a wide range of people interpret or channel his creations in their own way.
Speaking of which, below is the aforementioned video of Norah Jones performing ‘Black Hole Sun’ at the Fox Theater, Detroit.
In conclusion (and I know I’ve gone on for way too long: but it’s probably the last time I’m going to talk about Chris Cornell here and he’s meant a lot to me), I really don’t think this event could’ve been much better.
And man, that final nine minutes or so of Soundgarden ‘outro’ will stay with me for the rest of my life.
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