“You’ve gone soft Chris!” slurred an overzealous bogan from the left-hand side of the theatre. Cornell strummed his pristine acoustic axe, grinned from behind a Jesus-like beard and flicked aside his long wavy rock ‘n’ roll helmet, retorting coolly “Yeah, I guess I have.”
30 minutes earlier…
The rear laneway of the Canberra Theatre was blocked by a large white semi, the first hint that tonight’s show, although billed as a ‘stripped back’ experience, would provide large scale professionalism and production to the nth degree. The lobby was bustling with darkly clothed rock fans; people were jostling for a spot at the bar, sandwiched around small round tables and struggling to hold onto their quota of empty beer bottles. Then the moment finally came: “Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Cornell will be on stage in five minutes.” Within seconds the horde of sauced up fanatics had dispersed into the main room, leaving behind a wake of empty Pringles tins and enough hastily discarded glassware to fill a small in-ground pool.
Inside the red belly of the theatre the stage was flanked by six imposing guitars and a single turntable. Soon the murmurs of the crowd erupted into a deafening roar welcoming Cornell on stage. As fans all know, his recent ascent (or descent, depending on your opinion) into hardcore Christianity has transformed him physically and tonight his classic gothic warrior look has given way to khaki slacks and a humble white t-shirt. Appearances aside, as soon as he unleashed the trademark gravelly monster from the depths of his diaphragm, the entire room sat captivated in awe.
A theatre is a dangerous place for a rock performance, for as everyone knows, as soon as a boozy bogan is placed in some kind of confined public seating arrangement their inner monologue is set to ‘off’ and every small thought they have is vomited out in the most Australian of twangs. “Play Seeewn-gaaarden!” yells one, taking advantage of the very first moment of silence; his pissy plea starting a chain reaction, an almighty Mexican sound-wave of ill-timed requests. “Spoon Meeeen!”, “Black Hole Sun!!!” and so on. Luckily Cornell was a consummate professional, holding himself on stage like a seasoned stand up, replying to each increasingly embarrassing remark with a smile and a surprisingly witty response.
Cornell moved through a bunch of left field solo tracks, a couple of Audioslave anthems and even a Temple of The Dog classic, but as the loudmouth interactive audience had made clear, it was the Soundgarden back catalogue that everyone was baying for. It was here that Cornell really delivered, belting out hits like Black Hole Sun and Fell On Black Days; his mind-blowing vocal range embraced by unbelievably precise guitar work. The break between songs summoned rapturous applause – sometimes he changed guitar, others he grabbed a vinyl record, slapped it on the lone turntable and played alongside.
After almost two hours, the man declared that the show was over and disappeared offstage to an emotional thunderclap of hands and voices. Predictably, he returned soon after for a short encore, treating the crowd to a surprising set of re-worked classics including Billy Jean and Imagine.
Tonight proved that Chris Cornell is still a rock god. You can take away the drums, you can take away the bass – hell, take the whole damn band if you want to – but the Seattle-bred legend of American grunge loses nothing on his own. For he is the voice of a genre, a true reminder of the best and most influential generation of modern rock music.