Soundgarden @ Sydney Entertainment Centre, Sydney (25/01/12)

Arriving at the soulless Entertainment Centre felt like a Delorean trip back to the early 90s with Sydney’s alternative/grunge/rock/metal community out in full force. Faded flannel shirts were scattered through the gathering hordes while the black t-shirt seemed to be the default dress code for the evening. Inside as the melodic hardcore of The Bronx (who had to hightail it up to the Metro to also play as Mariachi El Bronx) faded from the ears and showtime approached the venue was fairly full though they had curtained off the top tier meaning the gig was well short of a sell out.

As lights dimmed and anticipation peaked the quartet appeared and Kim Thayil sent those pealing, scattered guitar notes of Searching With My Good Eye Closed out across the huge expanse of the Entertainment Centre. It felt like hooking up with an old friend as the band fell in behind Thayil and that familiar sonic surge and rumble of Soundgarden kicked into gear. It was good start but over the next few songs the feeling of potential revelation quickly disappeared due to an absolutely dismal sound mix. It was as if the soundman was mixing wet cement with guitars buried deep and murky, Chris Cornell’s vocals battling to rise out of the quicksand and Matt Cameron’s drums totally dominating everything with a loud, dry stadium sound. The greatest frustration was that as the sound-person was no doubt trying to rectify the situation the band were playing some of their greatest songs. Spoonman and particularly Jesus Christ Pose were disappointing to say the least and it wasn’t until after the band eased off the accelerator to play Blow Up The Outside World and Fell On Black Days that things began to slowly improve.

Early on they retreated deep into their catalogue to early metallic dispatches like Hunted Down and Louder Than Love’s Ugly Truth before working their way up to their seminal Badmotorfinger and the one-two punch of Outshined and Rusty Cage, the definitive highlights of the show. It was there that Cornell seemed to be right in the pocket instead of battling to find the space and timing for his still undeniably magnificent rock voice. The extraneous noise that clouded the first part of the set cleared and both songs sounded gloriously dark, anthemic and muscular. Most people would forgive Cornell for losing some of the edge and range of his vocals but for the most part it still soars and cuts through the air like a wailing banshee. There was some use of delay and reverb on his voice but it didn’t come across as a singing crutch.

Whilst Cornell was the focus for most, the rest of the band are just as crucial to the sound of Soundgarden. Cameron’s playing is impressively tight and precise, anchoring and propelling the rhythm section while bassist Ben Shepherd lurches chaotically, wrestling, abusing and wringing the notes from his instrument – at one point raising his bass above his head and letting it drop seven feet to the stage. Thayil’s playing was a complete contrast with the guitarist generating maximum sonic impact with minimal apparent effort. He was the calm in the eye of the storm while the beasts around him howled at the moon.

As they charged on through a fair chunk of Superunknown tracks like My Wave, The Day I Tried To Live and a superb 4th of July they reminded us how good that album is – so many great songs that suffered in the shadow of the radio friendly Black Hole Sun that tonight was subjected to a turgid and dour delivery.

The encore didn’t suffer from the fact that most of the band’s biggest songs had already been played. Room a Thousand Years Wide was epic in scale and summed up the band’s metal/punk/psych marriage perfectly. A trip all the way back to 1989 with primitive metallic chug of I Awake preceded a gloriously savage take on Slaves & Bulldozers which ended in Thayil and Shepherd coaxing an orchestral tsunami of feedback out of their guitars, signaling that they are still as devoted to noise and dissonance as they are to song-craft.

Earlier Cornell had made a point that they would be back later in the year to tour a new album which means that this may have been the last opportunity to hear many of these songs performed live if the band lives up to their promise. Aside from a venue that did its best to distance the band from the audience and some appalling audio issues Soundgarden and their music rose above the distractions and proved they are still a devastating and visceral band who seem to get just as much of a kick out of revisiting their music as their fans do.