Soundgarden –- Live at The Vic Theater, Chicago, 8/5/10

Last night Chicago welcomed Lollapalooza headliners Soundgarden to the Vic, a beautiful five-story vaudeville-style theater sandwiched between the Lincoln Park and Wrigley neighborhoods. The show was a preview, of sorts, as the recently reunited Seattle quartet plays the Budweiser stage Sunday night at Lollapalooza against Arcade Fire. Apparently the promoters are fans of old Westerns because on Sunday a line will be drawn in the sand between old and new, between the rugged journeyman and the mysterious – but notorious – adonis. Only the lucky Vic-sters and I won’t have to make that choice. We got to see Soundgarden three days early in a performance that felt like a bit of a warm-up, but certainly didn’t fail to hit its target.

The last time I listened to Soundgarden – really listened to them – was on the cassette deck of my first car in the summer of 1997, the year that the band broke up. The year before, Down on the Upside had come out. Upside’s success was marred a bit by its predecessor Superunknown, a record that had done so well that any follow-up was likely to be a let down. Superunkown would have been the album I was listening to that summer – it’s songs making a permanent imprint in the musical memory of my youth. That cassette deck experience, however, was as close as I ever came to seeing the band live. So last night was a privilege.

Soundgarden were pioneers. And in an era when bands were aching with tragedy and drama, they weren’t. When things started to taper – when musical opinions within the band and the industry made touring and collaboration a chore, they made a clean break and set the band aside.

Drummer Matt Cameron started drumming with Pearl Jam a year later while Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd faded a bit into obscurity. But Chris Cornell went on to semi-greatness. His first solo record Euphoria Morning is a frequently over-looked gem: one full of melody and genre-rich compositions in a similar vain as Soundgarden’s last hit “Burden in My Hand.” And, then, of course there is Audioslave. Whatever your opinion about that band, the collaboration between Cornell and Rage Against the Machine (sans Zack de la Rocha) became, arguably, the most successful “supergroup” of our time with popularity to match if not surpass Soundgarden’s. Whatever the genesis was of that idea – and I think it was Rick Rubin’s – it was a brilliant one.

So too was the idea of getting Soundgarden back together. Audioslave has run its course, and Cornell’s last solo effort was disaster. So with Pearl Jam is on hiatus, Matt Cameron was available and Thayil and Shepherd, well, those guys could probably use the paycheck.

Thursday night at the Vic was nearly as good as you can imagine. Nearly. To tell the truth, I was kind of giddy with excitement which never happens anymore. It was a special night, though. Most of the attendees were drawing winners, getting their chance to buy tickets from a lottery at the band’s website. Capacity at the Vic is only something like 1200 and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

Soundgarden have aged well. Cornell especially – the man is ageless. The band took the stage about 15 minutes after their set time, making us wait an hour after openers Minus the Bear left the stage. But when they finally made it out, they opened with “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” from their breakthrough record Badmotorfinger. “Spoonman” followed and then “Loud Love” from the band’s second, heavy-metalesque record Louder than Love. Throughout the evening, I was struck by something that is probably obvious to most hard-core Soundgarden fans, but maybe less so to fans like me that started listening post-Badmotorfinger: Soundgarden was a metal band. Sure they were grunge pioneers and all that, but first and foremost they are loud and extremely heavy. Much heavier than Pearl Jam and even Nirvana ever were. All of their albums are riff-heavy and feature Thayil’s mind-numbing guitar work, but, I had overlooked their metal roots. They run deep.

The main set seemed a bit slow to get off its feet. There were some vocal mic problems and one or two tuning/equipment delays. And while kids, er, grown men were crowd surfing during openers like “Rusty Cage” and “Jesus Christ Pose,” Cornell commented from stage a few times about the lack of screaming from the audience. Folks were excited though, and I think it had more to do with the band than the audience. Things picked up when during the intro for “Outshined,” Chris waved to his kids and family up in the balcony and started smiling at the audience a little. Audiences like that. The second half of the set included more “hits” that the first half including “Fell on Black Days,” “Burden in My Hand,” “Pretty Noose,” and “Superunknown.” Even “Black Hole Sun,” the one Soundgarden song that eventually started to taste a bit saccharine to me back when it was on MTV every hour on the hour, had an authentic sweetness about it last night.

Things concluded with a long and heavy renditions of “Mailman” and “Slaves and Bulldozers” – and by then the members of the band seemed to have fallen easily back into their usual roles. Cameron was the consummate professional and Thayil was statuesque and somber, playing Gibson after beautiful Gibson. Shepherd was caustic and even a bit menacing — but seemed to be having good time. Cornell, well, the man has one of the most incredible voices in rock & roll and demonstrated that well last night.

After a short break ushered in by a feedback symphony from Thayil, Soundgarden closed the show with, perhaps, the best three songs of the evening: “4th of July,” “Blow Up the Outside World” and, one of my personal favorites, “Like Suicide.” The only song conspicuously missing from the set last night was the classic Superunkown anthem “The Day I Tried to Live.” Its inclusion would have made an already amazing night just that much better.

In three days they’ll do it again only this time to a crowd in the tens of thousands. Considering the heat and fatigue that will have set in by that time for the Lolla masses, last night’s show was a gift not soon forgotten.