Over the course of nearly five hours at the Forum in Los Angeles, I Am The Highway: A Tribute To Chris Cornell featured everything from Metallica to Miley, Melvins to Miguel. Indeed, the breadth and depth of performers speaks to Cornell’s long and varied career: the Soundgarden icon who went from subterranean Sub Popper to Alternative Nation icon; the Audioslave wailer who tackled rock radio; the folky solo star with vocal pyrotechnics. But it also speaks to his unique talent as a singer, someone who could hit gloomy lows and Zepplinian highs, do sandpaper sludge or beaming ballads.
Basically, a bunch of guys from contemporary rock bands aren’t going to do his songs justice. The most evocative proof was during the Audioslave mini-set: They did a perfectly slamming “Set It Off,” but the song required two singers – Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath on rasp, X-Ambassadors’ Sam Harris on bravado chorus – to even approach one Chris Cornell.
The night featured no shortage of rock royalty – Metallica, Foo Fighters, members of Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains joining forces for early Soundgarden track “Hunted Down” – but indeed some of the best moments were the pop stars that could approximate Cornell’s formidable range. No one stood out more than Miley Cyrus, who exploded all over a cover of 2009 Cornell blues ballad “Two Drink Minimum” (AKA “As Hope And Promise Fades”). Later in the evening she joined a Temple Of The Dog reunion of sorts (Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam with Josh Freese on drums) for an absolutely gorgeous, soulful, warbly version of “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” gritting up her voice on the second verse and getting cheers from the audience.
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#Repost @mileycyrus (@get_repost) ・・・ Say Hello to Heaven… had a heavenly experience with you tonight, Chris. We felt you and heard you…. your words and spirit filled the room…. there was an overwhelming feeling of so much love… we miss you deeply … tonight was an honor… #IAmTheHighway #ChrisCornell #MileyCyrus
One of the most amazing moments of the evening came from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, performing Cornell solo tune “Seasons” with bandmate Jesse Carmichael and Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard. Levine has Cornell-style chops, but not a whole lot of rust on his cage. But when he says “the naked floor reminds me” for the second time in the bridge, Levine caught a line of pure Cornell electric crackle.
The Melvins, who appeared with Soundgarden on 1986 Seattle rock anthology Deep Six, were natural matches to bluster through the tricky 7/8 acrobatics of “Spoonman,” but they didn’t dare attempt Cornell’s yowling chorus. Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, in a black suit, was punching out of his weight class doing Johnny Cash’s arrangement of “Rusty Cage” (with some Black Sabbath riffs thrown in), but certainly had some deft electric guitar handling.
The Foo Fighters escaped a little of the pressure by being the most fun band of the night: They did Down On The Upside deep cut “No Attention” as a punk rave-up and followed it by doing Soundgarden’s arrangement’s of Devo’s “Girl U Want” and Cheech & Chong’s “Earache My Eye” – of course, it’s incredible funny to hear Dave Grohl do Cheech Marin’s line “I’m a big rock star and I’m makin’ lots of money.” Metallica simply played Soundgarden songs like Metallica songs, turning Ultramega O.K. tracks “All Your Lies” and “Head Injury” into merciless locomotives bookending their own “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Master Of Puppets.”
Temple Of The Dog — a band originally fronted by Cornell and formed to mourn and celebrate Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone — were once again mourning and celebrating with a revolving door of singers. Nikka Costa gave “Preaching At The End Of The World” a little broadway and a little soul; Fiona Apple did a loose and Janis-y “All Night Thing” and Miguel joined them for a smooth and silky take on “Reach Down,” engaging the audience to sing along. Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile did a version of the iconic “Hunger Strike” with a little twang, a little soul and none of the macho energy of the post-grunge bands approximating that tune – it shimmered like a country tune thanks to their harmonies.
The night closed with a triumphant eight-song battering ram by Soundgarden, who remain fleet-fingered and heavy-hitting. Taylor Momsen of Pretty Reckless (“Rusty Cage,” “Drawing Flies,” “I Awake”) probably sounded the most like Cornell of anyone on stage during the night. Marcus Durant of Zen Guerilla (“Flower,” “Outshined”) and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins (“Loud Love,” “The Day I Tried to Live”) were a little bit more like Soundgarden karaoke. The set closed with Carlile singing “Black Hole Sun” like a gasp with the surreal addition of Peter Frampton next to Kim Thayil playing a ripping solo. Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd then played about nine minutes of patient feedback and drone, an expressionistic cry of warring frequencies and crunching noise. A night of pop and feedback was a fantastic tribute to a singer whose singular voice seemed to embody them both.