SXSW Live Shot: Soundgarden

Back to the ‘Superunknown,' in its black hole entirety

SXSW Live Shot: Soundgarden

Chris Cornell apologized in advance. “We have so many tunings on this record, we’ll be switching guitars every song,” he told the near-capacity crowd at ACL Live at the Moody, holding an iPhone to the crowd in a thinly veiled bit of product placement.

Superunknown was simply never intended to be played from start to finish live. The apex of the grunge era, the 1994 classic remains Soundgarden’s most complex and riveting work, a gargantuan 70-minute downward spiral.

“The max amount that could fit on a compact disc at the time,” explained Cornell.

In fact, before this Thursday night set at the iTunes Music Festival, the band had never even attempted Superunknown in its entirety, not even in rehearsal. No matter. Coinciding with a five-disc deluxe reissue, Soundgarden rolled like Sisyphus through 15 consecutive tracks, heavier than a cancer scare.

From the coiling “Let Me Down” to his vultures-circling riff in “Black Hole Sun,” which sounded like it was being played in reverse, the savage brilliance of Cornell’s existentialism and banshee wail was matched only by guitarist Kim Thayil’s dark arts.

Given alt-rock radio these last two decades, it’s easy to overlook Superunknown’s impact, yet with five massive singles, only Metallica compares when it comes to such a somber work earning mainstream acceptance. In that sense, Thursday’s show was an act of reclamation. When drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd locked into the circuital groove of “Spoonman” and lurched like a slugworm through the doom-metal of “Mailman,” Soundgarden had its own gravitational sway.

Sunken and head down, stringy hair covering his face for most of the evening, Cornell seemed to fall into the album’s darker recesses. Who could blame him? Superunknown’s still the type of album you can dig a hole and crawl into.

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Soundgardern, SXSW Music 2014, Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, Ben Shepard

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