The rock world looks at April 17, 1991 as a night unlike any other: That's when Nirvana first played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in public. So the 6th & I Historic Synagogue was a fitting room for Sunday’s show by Chris Cornell, former singer for first-wave grungers Soundgarden and a guy still tied to the Seattle scene on the 20th anniversary of an event that, fair or not, could get credit for Cornell’s mainstream renown.
Cornell, who at 46 still pulls off the Dirtball Messiah as well as any rocker, is playing solo and mostly unplugged on his current tour. He sated the flock by rendering faithful, if stripped down, versions of Soundgarden classics, including “Burden in My Hand” and “Black Hole Sun.” Though he’ll always be pigeonholed as a grunge act, he can make any noise between whisper and scream sound musical. He had the most metallic shriek of the genre’s lead throats, as he showed while roaring Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You.” He turned his mucho macho falsetto loose during Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.”
He belted out pop rock worthy of Bad Company during “Doesn’t Remind Me,” the most memorable tune from his run with the supergroup Audioslave. He’s mastered the Okie Folkie thing, too, rasping through a fabulous version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” nugget, “State Trooper.”
Cornell tried a few tricks to stave off the tedium that can come with watching one guy alone onstage for more than two hours. For “State Trooper,” one of the few songs played on an electric guitar, he digitally programmed a few chords to play in a loop, and after singing the verses he went on a psychedelic soloing binge. The tune ended with him kneeling in front of his amplifier and begging for feedback, a bit borrowed from an earlier Seattle act, Jimi Hendrix. He resorted to some analog gimmickry, too: Cornell put a vinyl recording of a piano track of the musical backing for Soundgarden’s “When I’m Down” and transformed the number into something close to jazz.
Late into the long set, Cornell did renditions of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and John Lennon's "Imagine.” Though Jackson’s lyrics ("The kid is not my son!") haven't aged quite as gracefully as Lennon’s ("Imagine all the people living for today”), Cornell belted them out with equal earnestness.