Singer Chris Cornell turned up at New York’s Beacon Theatre for his sold-out concert last night — the first of two at the venue, part of a U.S. tour running into early November — dressed like he was ready for the hard labor of his longer-running gig with Seattle heavy-rock institution Soundgarden: gray jacket, unbuttoned red-flannel shirt and white T-shirt; blue jeans tucked inside loosely laced work boots.
But the back line of acoustic guitars was the sort of armory you typically see at Neil Young’s solo shows, and Cornell opened his two-hour set with blatant romance from his current album, Higher Truth: “Before We Disappear,” which he introduced as a song for his wife, Vicky. Cornell followed that with two more ballads of darker hue — “Can’t Change Me” and “Moonchild,” from his recently reissued 1999 solo debut, Euphoria Mourning — and then performed a pessimistic, devolutionary spin on Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” as “The Times They Are A-Changin’ Back.” “If Bob Dylan would like to rewrite one of my songs, I’m totally fine with that,” Cornell cracked afterward.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, should Dylan be so moved. Cornell’s solo shows — he’s been touring this way since 2009, under the “Songbook” banner — are drawn from a surprisingly elastic history of bands and records, and the singer is effectively liberal in his stripped-back approach to the work. At the Beacon, Cornell reconfigured the panzer-riff charge of “Rusty Cage” from Soundgarden’s 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, as a galloping-cowboy ballad. In “Fell on Black Days” from that group’s 1994 psychedelic-metal peak, Superunknown, he let second instrumentalist Bryan Gibson loose on cello; he rattled the song’s bone-y crawl like he was bowing and plucking the strings on a mortally wounded baritone-register guitar.
Stepping outside the noise to show the songwriter inside is an established Seattle tradition. Kurt Cobain’s final artistic triumph was his November, 1993, performance with Nirvana for MTV’s Unplugged; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder made his solo-album bow with the quiet tensions on Into the Wild, his 2007 soundtrack to that Sean Penn film. Cornell comes to the concept with a substantial, original songbag that stands up to this kind of open space and bared knuckles. At different points in his two-hour set at the Beacon, Cornell went back to “You Know My Name,” his 2006 theme song to the James Bond film, Casino Royale; “Blow Up the Outside World,” a bleak streak of vengeance from Soundgarden’s 1996 LP, Down on the Upside; and the ravenous fury of “Hunger Strike,” originally performed as a duet with Vedder on the 1991 Soundgarden–Pearl Jam collaboration, Temple of the Dog.
Cornell is also a surprisingly effective showman on his own — conversational with the crowd, with a sharp wit (that Dylan remark) and a willingness to take the occasional request. For a few songs, he stepped out from behind his mic stand, strapped on a Dylan-like harmonica rack outfitted with its own mic, and prowled the lip of the stage as he sang. The covers were crowd pleasers too: Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Cornell’s viral-hit treatment of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But he played them like challenges to both his interpretive range and your expectations. “Billie Jean” was closer to Delta blues, in Cornell’s rubbery lower-string strum and steady growl. And whatever lingering impatience he has with Robert Plant comparisons, Cornell slowly entered that early, offbeat Zeppelin ballad with his elder’s poise but his own grave, grateful tone.
The power and sustain that distinguished Cornell’s voice — and in turn Soundgarden’s cinematic metal — during the Seattle renaissance remain in full effect. The singer, who turned 51 in July, can hit and grip notes at the upper extreme of his near-four-octave spread with no apparent strain or dropped register. There was no showing off, either, at the Beacon. Cornell scaled the expected peaks in Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” but didn’t milk those moments for applause. And in “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” from Higher Truth, he hung around the lower end of his range for much of the song, as if clinging to Gibson’s spindly mandolin for support. When Cornell detonated that wail, especially in the questioning bridge, he sounded like a guy lost in the pines, yelling into a Pacific Northwest wind — a believable drama, with roots going back to Soundgarden’s first Sub Pop records.
Cornell made his bones writing fiercely confessional hard-rock songs, then singing them as if his life depended on it. The only difference at the Beacon last night — you could hear so much more of the life inside.