Chris Cornell’s friends and family offered up many heartfelt tributes at Los Angeles’ Forum Wednesday night, but the one that captured his essence best improbably came from Jack Black. “Sometimes Chris Cornell would sing a note that didn’t exist,” he told the sold-out crowd. “Sometimes [he] would sing a note that was between two real notes, and it would open a portal into another dimension. I don’t know if that’s true. Like, maybe it was probably a real note – it was probably a C-flat – but it was the way he sang it like it ripped a portal to another dimension. You know that wasn’t just some studio magic.”
Cornell’s vocal acrobatics and unique magic may have been absent at the five-hour event, officially dubbed I Am the Highway: A Tribute to Chris Cornell, but there were plenty of singers who came close, and many of his former bandmates and friends summoned his quintessence, as they pulled from all corners of his songbook. The core group of performers was a who’s who of the Seattle grunge scene – enough members of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Melvins that they could have gone rogue and started their own rival Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the spot.
Cornell’s former Audioslave bandmates also played, as did Metallica, Foo Fighters and Ryan Adams. There was also a litany of notable guest singers: Miley Cyrus, Fiona Apple, Chris Stapleton, Miguel and Adam Levine sang a mix of Cornell’s solo material and works with bands. “All I gotta say is it takes some balls to get up there,” one fan said mid-show. “Those are some hard songs to sing.”
Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks, Courtney Cox and many others showed up too to pay their respects and celebrate Cornell’s talents, and Jimmy Kimmel served as the night’s affable host, keeping the mood light as the production attempted to change between performers quickly. It was the sort of star-studded Hollywood tribute you might expect for Tom Petty or David Bowie, but instead it was honoring someone who was somewhat of an unsung hero.
It was a dark and rainy, Seattle-esque night outside the Forum, but it would have already felt like that inside judging from the sea of grunge T-shirts the audience was wearing, including many Soundgarden shirts (and even one for Citizen Dick). To kick off the evening, the three surviving members of Soundgarden addressed the audience, and drummer Matt Cameron explained how the event came together. “When the idea of a tribute concert for my friend Chris Cornell was presented to me, I was torn,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had the strength required to pull it off. So I went back to the music. I heard his voice, and I found my strength. … Chris is here with us tonight. He has the best seat in the house.” And during some of the sets, namely the Foo Fighters’ when Dave Grohl performed “Everlong” solo in tribute to Chris, there was a spotlight on an empty part of the stage.
Cornell’s spirit, in all its many guises, was perpetually present. The raving lunatic of his earliest recordings was there in Melvins’ bulldozing “Spoonman” and Metallica’s crushing “All Your Lies.” The jokester who’d grab crowds’ attentions in Foo Fighters’ impish covers-of-Soundgarden’s-covers like Devo’s “Girl U Want” and Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye.” The contemplative troubadour Cornell became during his mid-career turnaround came through in Apple’s rendition of Temple of the Dog’s “All Night Thing.” The genre-defying songsmith came through in Josh Homme’s take on Johnny Cash’s version of “Rusty Cage.” The songwriter-for-the-sake-of-songwriting came through in Rita Wilson’s emotional rendition of his soundtrack song, and final single of his lifetime, “The Promise.” The brooding, depressed artist was there in Ryan Adams’ “Fell on Black Days.” The loving father showed his effect on his kids when his daughter, Toni, sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with Ziggy Marley. The list could go on and on.
The night’s best performances seemed to surprise the audience. Of course it helped that someone like Dave Grohl, rock’s most indefatigable cheerleader, would play a set with Foo Fighters and then return for a stunning rendition of “Show Me How to Live” with Audioslave. And Alice in Chains’ William DuVall and Jerry Cantrell tapped into Cornell’s early animalistic id with their take on Soundgarden’s first single, “Hunted Down,” when they guested with some Temple members.
But while it’s clear the crowd had its favorites, cheering for the headliners and Chris Stapleton, it quickly came around to some of the pop artists who made appearances. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine matched Cornell’s tone better than most singers on his rendition of the solo song “Seasons,” from the Singles soundtrack, and it was so convincing it got cheers from the crowd midway through.
Brandi Carlile was a perfect rock frontwoman and got the audience to lead a chorus of Audioslave’s “Like a Stone” all by themselves. And the night’s true showstopper was perhaps the artist rock fans were most skeptical of: Miley Cyrus. Although she sang a moving rendition of the solo recording “As Hope and Promise Fade” earlier in the evening, she brought the crowd to its feet when she belted out Temple of the Dog’s “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” pushing her voice to its max and headbanging.
What became evident throughout the evening was just how complex and nuanced Cornell’s songs were. As Black noted, not everyone can open a portal into another dimension, but the producers did a good job of finding singers who could try. It took R&B singer Miguel to nail his soulfulness on Temple of the Dog’s “Reach Down,” a performance that benefitted from Nikka Costa’s harmonies (as well as Miguel’s secret talent at grunge swaying during the guitar solos). And while Soundgarden performed their set of hits and deep cuts for diehards (“I Awake”!), you could see some of the singers struggle ever so slightly; surprise guest Taylor Momsen had to find the groove on “Rusty Cage,” a song in a funky time signature, and Taylor Hawkins jokingly renamed “The Day I Tried to Live” “The Day I Tried to Sing.”
But the whole evening, which Cornell’s widow Vicky masterminded to benefit the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation and the Epidermolysis Bullosa Medical Research Foundation, had a bit of a loose, party vibe – more of an Irish wake than a solemn tribute – that made it fun. The only downsides were that not all of Cornell’s bandmates were there (absentees, at least onstage, included Audioslave’s Tim Commerford, Temple of the Dog’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready and founding Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamamoto) and that it perhaps ran too late on a school night to keep the audience there into the wee hours to witness the night’s finale, a rendition of “Black Hole Sun” sung by Carlile that featured Peter Frampton on guitar trading off licks with Kim Thayil. By the time the lights went up at the end of Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd’s ritualistic, nine-minute feedback session, about a third of the crowd had exited.
Those who stayed though witnessed the full magnitude of Cornell’s brilliance and a unique insight into what made him special. It’s something that Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog guitarist Stone Gossard captured perfectly in his address to the crowd. “The way I see it, Chris was a bluesman,” he said. “He got the blues. And he turned those feelings into songs that made us vibrate, and they made us move. … All of our lives are still tumbling along without our leader. … So the question is now what do we do? What would Chris have us do? I think this concert is a step in the right direction.”
I Am the Highway Set List
The Melvins (Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover, Steven Shane McDonald, Jeff Pinkus)
- “Kicking Machine”
- “With Yo’ Heart (Not Yo’ Hands)”
- “Heart of Honey”
- “The Promise”
Nikka Costa and Alain Johannes
- “Disappearing One”
- “The Keeper”
Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Chris Shiflett, Rami Jaffee)
- “No Attention”
- “Earache My Eye”
- “Girl You Want”
- “Everlong (Acoustic)”
- “Rusty Cage”
Adam Levine, Jesse Carmichael, and Stone Gossard
- “Two Drink Minimum”
Audioslave (Tom Morello and Brad Wilk)
- “Cochise” (with Geezer Butler and Perry Farrell)
- “Be Yourself” (with Geezer Butler and Juliette Lewis)
- “Set It Off” (with Chris Chaney, Sam Harris and Tim Mcllrath)
- “Like A Stone” (with Chris Chaney and Brandi Carlile)
- “Show Me How To Live”(with Robert Trujillo and Dave Grohl)
Toni Cornell and Ziggy Marley
- “Redemption Song”
Metallica (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Robert Trujillo)
- “All Your Lies”
- “For Whom The Bell Tolls”
- “Master of Puppets”
- “Head Injury”
Ryan Adams (Daphne Chen, Richard Dodd, Eric Gorfain, Leah Katz, and Don Was)
- “Dead Wishes”
- “Fell On Black Days”
Temple Of The Dog
- “Preaching The End Of The World” (Nikka Costa, Alain Johannes, Stone Gossard, Brendan O’Brien, and Josh Taylor)
- “Can’t Change Me” (Nikka Costa, Alain Johannes, Stone Gossard, Eric Avery, and Josh Freese)
- “Hunted Down” (William DuVall, Jerry Cantrell, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and Josh Freese)
- “All Night Thing” (Fiona Apple, Brendan O’Brien, David Garza, Jeff Ament, and Matt Chamberlain)
- “Reach Down” (Miguel, Nikka Costa, Stone Gossard, Brendan O’Brien, Jeff Ament, and Matt Cameron)
- “Say Hello 2 Heaven” (Miley Cyrus, Brendan O’Brien, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and Josh Freese)
- “Hunger Strike” (Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton, Stone Gossard, Brendan O’Brien, Jeff Ament, and Matt Cameron)
Soundgarden (Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron)
- “Rusty Cage” (with Taylor Momsen)
- “Flower” (with Marcus Durant)
- “Outshined” (with Marcus Durant and Stone Gossard)
- “Drawing Flies” (with Taylor Momsen, Buzz Osborne, Matt Demeritt, and Tracy Wanamae)
- “Loud Love” (with Taylor Momsen, Tom Morello, and Wayne Kramer)
- “I Awake” (with Taylor Hawkins and Buzz Osborne)
- “The Day I Tried To Live” (with Taylor Hawkins and Buzz Osborne)
- “Black Hole Sun” (with Brandi Carlile, Peter Frampton, Tim Hanseroth, and Phil Hanseroth)