There was a time when it wasn’t a pseudo-common thing for a band to play a record straight through in concert. That time wasn’t that long ago, but it seems to be receding ever faster into the rearview. Once a practice associated with washed-up, no-longer-relevant acts making the rounds and cashing in on lingering nostalgia, the act of playing your defining work the whole way through in concert seemed something of a capitulation. You weren’t even putting in the work to differentiate a live show from your studio presence, not bothering to create a new narrative by placing songs ten years apart right next to each other in a set. Maybe it’s because we’re all so accustomed to versions of nostalgia as a cultural language now, or maybe we just got over it, but a lot of people seem to play their records straight through in concert, as a fairly casual thing. And it can be pretty great. Out of the nearly twenty times I’ve seen My Morning Jacket, five of them were the band playing their then-entire catalogue as recorded, one album a night; they remain amongst my favorite concerts I’ve ever attended. And I’m still dying to go to a Springsteen show where he spontaneously decides to do Born In The U.S.A. or Darkness On The Edge Of Town the whole way through. We’ve wrapped around to a point where, if the tone’s right, these kinds of shows can be celebratory and interesting in their own right, perhaps able to open you up to some sort of new experience with songs you’ve heard a million times in the course of two or three decades.
Last night Soundgarden was the latest iteration in the big-ticket iTunes Festival SXSW shows, which occur at the Moody Theater rather than in the myriad bars and backyards much of the rest of the festival takes over. The hook for the night was that they were playing their masterwork, Superunknown, in its entirety to mark its recent 20th anniversary. As a bonus, it’s drummer Matt Cameron’s sole show with Soundgarden in 2014, a year in which he’s otherwise on hiatus from the band while fulfilling prior obligations with Pearl Jam.
This is the sort of show an earlier incarnation of Soundgarden would’ve likely sneered at, and I still wasn’t sure how seriously they’d be taking it. But Chris Cornell was in a pretty warm mood for much of the show. He came onstage and immediately mentioned how they’d never — not even in a rehearsal — played the whole album straight through, and joked that when they’d sequenced it they hadn’t thought about how annoying it’d be to change guitars (pretty much literally) every song due to the bizarre tunings the band often employs. Before “Limo Wreck,” he explained that the song had earned them credit for predicting “all this terrible stuff like Nostradamus. We were prophets!” Later, after “The Day I Tried To Live,” Cornell explained “We still have a lot to do because this is a Soundgarden album and because we recorded everything we wrote and we didn’t take anything off.” He wasn’t immune to a bit of introspection, either, as his band’s masterwork enters its third decade of life. “This really brings me back,” he began. “It doesn’t feel like twenty [years ago]. Most of the time it feels like seven. Sometimes it feels like a hundred. But it never feels like twenty.”
Suitably, some of the songs sounded a hundred years old, some sounded seven, and a handful actually sounded new again. The warhorses moved along with professional efficiency — “My Wave,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell On Black Days,” and “Spoonman” were all done with conviction, but were also evidently songs the band knew inside and out. For the diehards that had made their way into the Moody Theater, the highlights were always going to be how Soundgarden interpreted lesser-performed songs. These ranged from songs you might’ve been lucky to catch a few times to stuff you would’ve never had a chance to hear. In the latter category, “Limo Wreck” delivered with a steadily and powerfully serpentine groove that seemed, as ever, to be coaxing you down into something deep and darkly ineffable. “4th Of July” was every bit as heavy as you’d hope, becoming — and maybe this is the point where the sleep deprivation of SXSW was really hitting me — actually sort of frightening in a much more real way than your typical “This song’s pretty haunting” kind of thing. “Half,” the psychedelic interlude that bassist Ben Shepherd sang on the record, was turned into a harder-edged, unnerving jam. And I’ll unapologetically and unironically declare that hearing Soundgarden play “Fresh Tendrils” live was one of the best moments of 2014 so far.
As more of a production than most anyone else’s set at SXSW, Soundgarden played the entire night in front of a giant screen that alternated between surprisingly cheap looking psychedelic patterns, the Badmotorfinger logo come to life and spinning, or various desolate or distorted images of nature. The latter were most fitting and most evocative: a dead, snow- (or ash-) covered forest in the backdrop for “Fell On Black Days,” a ghost town of a factory enclosed by mountains for “4th Of July,” otherworldly skyscapes as if the clouds had been replaced by fire for “Mailman.” They captured the primal nature of Soundgarden’s brand of psychedelia — that their stranger sounds always feel like portals into some dangerous mysteries of human nature. Again, maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but during the towering closer that is “Like Suicide,” the band seemed to recede as black silhouettes bathed in ethereal pink and blue light, disappearing into the twisted pathways of Superunknown. It was the best way to end the night, as much about immersion as it was about removal, as much about catharsis as it was about a haunting.
[Photos by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images.]