Things got super-heavy on night three of the inaugural iTunes Festival at SXSW in Austin last night, as Soundgarden dove back into the thundering grooves of 1994's Superunknown, performing the career-defining album in full for the first time. It was a lesson in grunge at its prime, delivered with swagger and Chris Cornell's perfectly unhinged wail, still as piercing and musical as ever.
The riffs unfolded at the ACL Live at Moody Theatre, where Cornell greeted fans by scanning the crowd with an iPhone. He said the band hadn't quite managed to fully rehearse playing the album's 15 songs in order, and warned that Superunknown's multiple tunings meant he and guitarist Kim Thayil would change instruments with every song. Apologies hardly seemed necessary.
Reunited since 2010, Soundgarden had already reacquainted themselves with the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning album by preparing various 20th anniversary editions of Superunknown set for release on June 3rd. The reissues collect demos, B-sides, alternate mixes, live recordings and other tracks and tendrils from the band's landmark hard rock album, which helped defined the grunge era alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.
In Austin, the album's MTV hits and deep tracks descended from the jet stream still sounding fresh and potent from the quartet. Powerhouse drummer Matt Cameron, who also pounds the beat for fellow Seattle rockers Pearl Jam, provided a crucial edge, and wore a T-shirt with a one word motto: "Rhythms."
The quartet dove right into the Nineties grunge depths with album-openers "Let Me Drown" and "My Wave." With "Fell On Black Days," the band fully ignited amid the duel guitars of Kim Thayil and Cornell. The sound was dark and slippery, and in 2014 seemed as tough and timeless as key hard rock influences Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
Superunknown's title song had Cornell's voice at full boil amid the psychedelic crush of Thayil, standing stage-right in black, his beard streaked with gray. Cornell looked much as he always has, goateed and tightly wound, often leaning back from the mic to dig deeper into a riff.
The steady grind of "Mailman" rode a molten bass ripple from Ben Shepherd, standing tall in black jeans and motorcycle boots, while "Head Down" erupted slowly, until some quick lead melodies from Thayil. The massive hit "Black Hole Sun" began with a bit less cohesion, but shimmered and shook by the time it arrived at Cornell's banshee cry. As the song ended, the singer slowly bent over his guitar, wringing out a few final haunted notes.
There weren't a lot of onstage acrobatics from band members, choosing heaviosity over flash, from a rumbling "Spoonman" frayed at the edges to the oppressive grind of "4th of July." The band's punk roots came forth on "Kickstand," Cornell and Thayil slashing on guitars, Cameron and Shepherd pushing the rhythm ever faster, quick and to the pointless. The only thing missing was a Cornell stage dive as an exclamation point.
It was a brand of loudness also delivered by the supremely heavy British support act Band of Skulls, marking the hardest-rocking night of the iTunes Fest, which continues tonight in another mode entirely with Pitbull and ZEDD.