August 1, 2007

Philly weekend: Sunday (with Chris Cornell)

Sunday in Philly was much less busy and more focused. Started out with eggs and scrapple (a Philly favorite!) at the Midtown IV 24-hour cocktail lounge/restaurant. Let me repeat: a 24-hour cocktail lounge/restaurant. In the middle of Center City. There's character for you. By the time I was done it had begun to rain, which created the perfect atmosphere for wandering around a cemetery. Laurel Hill Cemetery, to be precise, a huge, gorgeous hillside spot overlooking the Schuylkill River and Fairmount Park.

With the cemetery wander out of the way, the rest of the day centered around that night's Chris Cornell gig. Not only was I seeing the man perform, I was going to attempt to meet up with folks from the fan forum and try to get a spot up front at the general admission show. I've mentioned before that GA is pretty much the only way I want to see shows anymore, but that there are disadvantages for someone of my height (or lack thereof). So, my plan was to get to the venue and be in line early enough to get up to the rail. Meeting the forum folks there was definitely advantageous, as they took over the front of the line. After over three hours of standing and waiting (under broiling sun, as the rain had totally cleared out), we all managed to get up front and center and were fairly giddy with anticipation.

A bit of digression: I recently made a comment at a Cornell forum about how Chris now writes "happy music", as compared to what came out of Soundgarden and his first solo album. It seems that my comment might have struck a chord with one of my forum mates, as she soon after posted a very thoughtful discussion of the tone of Cornell's recent lyrics and music which, of course, got me thinking about my own off-the-cuff comment. In retrospect, it's not so much Chris' lyrical content that's happy these days (though any fan would have to admit that the love songs to his wife are decidedly cheerful), it's his whole outlook on life and how it permeates the music he's writing now. His lyrics often do still have a dark quality to them, seeing as how he's recently addressed tragic killings along the lines of the Virginia Tech murders ("No Such Thing") and the chaos of war ("Silence the Voices"). Then there are the more obscure, yet eerie and somewhat intimidating, pieces such as "Poison Eye" and "Killing Birds". Even his "bubblegum pop" song, "Arms Around Your Love" isn't a happy chirpy love song, it's a painful depiction of what men often go through when they don't show appreciation for the woman they supposedly love. But the music is so perky in many of these songs, and that's where I think his more optimistic and cheerful attitude is creeping in and coloring his songs. Gone are the swirling, Oriental-influenced tones of pieces like "Pretty Noose" and the pounding assault of "Outshined". They've been replaced in many instances by very upbeat, tap-your-toe rhythms that are sometimes at odds with the lyrical content with which they're paired. In other places, the resigned hopefulness of classic SG lyrics like "The Day I Tried to Live" has been replaced by a more optimistic, rosy-eyed hope such as in "Safe and Sound". Chris is happier, and his music unconsciously reflects that. He can still reach into the dark side of the human soul for lyrical content, but he no longer dwells there and, to my ears, neither does the music he's creating.

I can't recall where I saw it, but I read an interview not too long ago in which Chris mentioned that one of his regrets is that he and the guys in SG didn't get more joy out of what they were doing at the time. That's definitely not the case now. From the moment he hit the stage, the show in Philly was a joyous event. Whether Chris was performing old tunes like "Let Me Drown" and "Spoonman" or new stuff from Carry On, he put his soul into it. He was so obviously enjoying every moment of what he was doing, and carried the audience along with him. Whenever he began that signature move of swinging his head and upper body from side to side like an autistic in self-stim mode, you could tell he was totally absorbed in the music. Being right up front made it a bit hard to hear things clearly, but the man could have been gargling hot razor blades and he still would have been mesmerizing. But he definitely wasn't having any problems with his voice-- even with a less than clear mix and what seemed to me to be sometimes off-key backing vocals, it was apparent that he was hitting every note with that slightly road-wearied, husky voice.

Instead of starting out with a rocking number, as he did in Baltimore with "Cochise", Chris shifted gears and began this show with the dramatic anthem "Silence the Voices". Now, this is one of the songs that I normally skip when listening to Carry On. The lyrics are actually very meaningful and moving, but the music and vocals are so dirge-like and there's some bizarre keyboards (apparently played by Chris himself) that I just can't listen to. Live, though, the song lives up to its lyrics. Without the keyboards and with a slightly quicker tempo, the new band brings more energy to the song, giving it more of an edge to go along with Chris' emotional delivery. From there, he launched into a head-banging performance of "Original Fire", followed by a tune I was ecstatic to hear, the SG classic "Let Me Drown".

One of the highlights of the evening for me was during his short acoustic set. He began to introduce one song by saying that he'd never performed it anywhere for anyone, except for his wife. My first thought was that he was referring to "Finally Forever", but I was delighted when instead he launched into "Roads We Choose" (lyrics n/a), a quirky tune that seems like a love song but that has some slightly strange lyrics. There's been debate on the fan forum as to whether he sings the word "bed" or "debt" at the end of the second verse, so I was intent on watching him sing the song so I could tell once and for all what the word is. As he got to that particular line, I was staring at his lips and… he flubbed it, singing the first line of the verse again as a lead-in to the part about "…all you ever do is treat me with respect." Chris, dude, yer killin' me. In spite of that, though, I loved hearing the acoustic version of the song.

Another touching moment was when he sang "Out of Exile", after explaining that it was about his wife and the baby girl they had together. At one point during the song, he walked to the side of the stage and held out his hand towards someone apparently sitting in the wings. I have to assume that he was trying to lure baby Toni out onto the stage with him, as he's recently done at other shows. He gave up after a few attempts, but it was funny and cute to watch him keep reaching out to someone who clearly was feeling stage-shy.

The rest of the set held few surprises, but every song was performed with energy and dead-on vocals from Chris. The crowd ate it up, even surprising him by launching into an a capella rendition of "Be Yourself" when he faked us out by holding out the mic instead of beginning to sing himself. At the very end, after a three-song encore, many of us refused to disperse even as roadies came out to break down the equipment. We wanted more, and Chris had better come back soon to give it to us.