On Tuesday, July 5th, 2011, Soundgarden headlined the Ottawa Bluesfest music festival as part of their reunion tour. Having spent the majority of my lifetime as an avid (some might say rabid) Soundgarden fan, yet having never seen them live before, I would not have missed this experience for the world.
Stage techs were still conducting their final sound check as I took my place in the crowd in front of the MBNA main stage on the Bluesfest grounds. 200 yards away, an enormous crowd of Ottawa scenesters were fighting each other for the best place to drink their beers in front of the Claridge Stage, where The Flaming Lips were rolling around in a plastic bubble, shooting confetti into the crowd, (still) protesting the presidency of George W. Bush, and employing in other such cheap tactics to cover up what I've known about that band since the first time I ever heard "Tangerines" on the radio way back in 199X: They suck. The scenesters didn't care. For them, being able to say they were at a Flaming Lips concert is worth more than the music itself and, unsurprisingly, they made their way over to a smaller stage after the show to take in the moody irrelevance of Tegan & Sara.
I mention this because, even an hour before the show began, it was clear by the construct of the crowd that the Soundgarden concert would be different. While the come-to-be-seen scenesters are mostly 30ish government workers who drive Honda Fits and intellectualize beer, those who staked out a spot on the grounds for Soundgarden were my old friends from Generation X. The crowd grew thicker, yet peaceful and polite. Friends chatted about other concerts they had been to recently. I ran into my old pal, Laura, and caught up a bit. This wasn't a scene, it was a group of music fans. I took a deep breath and got ready for the show.
And with a massive cheer to the opening chords of "Black Rain," there it was: the reason we were all there. Having formed some thirty years ago, the band has aged visibly, which only served to make the timelessness of the music itself that much more obvious. Every kick drum hit shook my chest physically, every devlish guitar tone bore into my brain, every soaring vocal melody set a note to my spirit, every twisted bass line wrapped itself around me physically and pulled me into the music...
But it wasn't until the signature opening drum fill of "Ugly Truth" that the magnanimity of what I was seeing and hearing hit me with its full force. At first, the rest of the crowd didn't seem to recognize it. They cheered quickly and easily to hits like "Outshined" and "Black Hole Sun," but many of them were slower to remember the B-sides. But the rhythm of "Ugly Truth" is unmistakable, and its massive-yet-spacious, weaving, odd-timed groove dropped my jaw as I realized the beautiful truth of what I was experiencing. Exactly why Soundgarden is the legendary band that it is hit me like a ton of bricks.
You simply cannot understand these songs until you hear them live.
The key ingredient to Soundgarden's artistry is the inexplicable way they manage to channel a unified stream of incredible music while still retaining the individuality of each group member. Chris Cornell was in full-on rock star mode, darting across the stage, entreating the audience to sing and participate, wailing into the microphone, and hitting those notes flawlessly, while his guitar tone was decided guitar junkie. His boutique guitar amps and vintage guitars produced a sound that was very much everything you read about on Harmony Central. In contrast, Kim Thayil played coolly at stage-left on his trademark Guild guitars and his unavoildable Mesa amplifiers. Yin and yang. Ben Shepherd, meanwhile, was playing his Fender basses as always and - again, as always - producing a sound that no other bass player has ever managed to produce: a twisted, almost alien tone that is heavy yet tender, evil and lonely, yet somehow soft and haunting. He's not one for stage showmanship, but that in itself is part of the show. And behind it all lie the massive grooves of Matt Cameron, who somehow manages to blend the crushing blows of a John Bonham with virtuosic rhythmic complexity. And hearing him play those beats live reveals what you can never know from listening to the albums: He's improvising those beautiful, precise, and hard-hitting fills, no matter how composed they sound.
Wave after wave of incredible music washed over me. Then, two hours later, it was over and I was back in the real world, where The Flaming Lips are more socially signficant; where politics takes the place of lyrical expression; where beer and marijuana are the real reasons people show up at rock concerts.
But for two hours, at least, I had the opportunity to experience real musical art, by artists who still know that no matter what gimmicks are employed by other bands, no matter how many times hairy scenester rock fills the air and gets sandaled feet tapping to show that they really get it, man, true art can never be replaced.