When grunge first congealed during the late '80s, its appeal was that it sounded old. Clever record execs marketed the emerging genre as a return to honest rock and roll — music made by denim-clad Cro-Magnon longhairs that loved Led Zeppelin, but remained uncorrupted by spandex, lipstick, and synthesizers.
Twenty-some years later, grunge is old.
Walking into the Patriot Center on Tuesday night to see a reunion concert by founding Seattle-scenesters, Soundgarden, one fan confided that his last visit to the arena was not to head-bang, but to bring his kids to see the Wiggles. Thirteen years after the band's break-up, its original fan base has given up moshing, taken out a mortgage, and mellowed out.
Soundgarden has not.
The Chris Cornell-fronted quartet, which reunited last year, performed its two-hour set at deafening volume, their instruments tuned so low that the strings on Ben Shepherd's bass seemed to flop around like limp spaghetti noodles.
The band dutifully delivered its cross-over hits — feel-bad lighter-wavers like "Black Hole Sun" and "Blow Up the Outside World" — but reveled in the smoggy stoner-rock of their deep cuts, drawing out knotty dirges like "Ugly Truth" and "Gun," both from 1989's "Louder Than Love." During the mid-'90s Soundgarden scored a fair share of radio singles, but its signature work is sludge rock — heavy metal approached with the simplicity and single-mindedness of punk.
As of late, grunge has been suffering for a torchbearer. After Kurt Cobain's suicide, Nirvana evaporated. Pearl Jam bought acoustic guitars and moved on. Nobody remembers Tad. Soundgarden has returned just in time to be the last band standing.
The reunion has also rescued Cornell, who, having spent years fronting Audioslave, recording a baffling, Timbaland-produced solo record, and wearing Captain Morgan's facial hair, seemed forever adrift. He's back on message now, both in wardrobe (faded jeans, leather boots, a shaggy beard) and in voice. Cornell's falsetto was the stuff of arena-rock legend — at his peak, he could high notes with the kind of mystical force that carves out mountain ranges in Tolkein novels. Somehow, his vocal range has survived the years. At the noisy crescendo of set closer "Slaves & Bulldozers," Cornell got down on one knee and clutched a wireless mic to his jaws, and screamed like it was 1991.