R.I.P. Chris Cornell: Looking back at his and Soundgarden's concerts in Tampa Bay
I've written about Chris Cornell dozens of times over the years. Among the phrases I've used to describe his voice: "golden," "preserved in amber," "a work of art," a "jet-engine wail," "always the Seattle scene's best."
I could keep going, but you get the picture: I truly loved Soundgarden and Cornell, probably the best singer-songwriter of the grunge generation, and one of the best in all of rock over the past 30 years. Here's my tribute to a personal musical hero, found dead early Thursday in what a medical examiner ruled suicide by hanging.
Perhaps surprisingly for a singer with such strong Seattle ties, Cornell gave Tampa Bay fans plenty of memories over the past three decades, performing here many times in different incarnations.
In 1989, Soundgarden played the old Masquerade in Ybor City, and returned a year later to headline the Cuban Club, months before releasing Badmotorfinger.
"We have this weird kaleidoscope of influences, that sort of flaps on the table like a dead fish and that's Soundgarden," Cornell told the Times' pop music critic, Eric Snider, before that 1990 show. "Most of my favorite vocalists, I didn't like their songs. Smokey Robinson has a totally amazing voice, but I never liked his songs. The same with Al Green. Joe Cocker has amazing voice, but I never liked what he did musically."
Was Cornell nervous about the prospect of becoming a total rock god?
"I don't see that as too much different from what I do now," he said. "It would be playing in front of thousands of people instead of hundreds. I still have the same pressures. I don't see it as much of a problem. I wouldn't mind being in that position, because I think I would have a lot more to offer than what's out there now."
In 1991, Soundgarden played Livestock II in Pasco County, then returned in December to open for Guns N' Roses at the Florida Suncoast Dome, now Tropicana Field.
The group "hit the stage to general disinterest" from GNR fans, Snider wrote in his review. "But it didn't take long for the quartet to captivate the half-full Dome with mountains of guitars and the piercing vocals of frontman Chris Cornell.
"The wiry Cornell was bare-chested for much of the set," Snider continued. "He wore baggy shorts and military boots. His long, wavy hair draped over his face. As he strutted around the stage, flinging his locks and wialing, he looked like a cross between Jim Morrison and Robert Plant. Soundgarden played its set with the attitude of a headliner, which will serve the band well in the future."
Shortly after releasing their mega-selling album Superunknown, Soundgarden were superstars who could headline St. Petersburg's old Bayfront Center arena on July 29, 1994.
"The star of the show," wrote Times reviewer Daniel Puckett, "was Chris Cornell, crooning and howling and screaming his way through material almost entirely taken from the last two albums. He pushed his voice beyond the limits one would expect during a live show, soaring during Room a Thousand Years Wide into a howl as visceral as anything he has done in the studio. Moreover, he showed he could carry the show singlehandedly, when the rest of the band withdrew and he performed Mind Riot solo."
And then, in 1997: Soundgarden was done. Cornell was adrift.
His next project, Audioslave, only came to Tampa Bay once, at the USF Sun Dome in 2005 (though they did play Cuba in a much-ballyhooed concert that same year). His next few local shows were solo: He canceled a solo show in 2007 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, but returned for a spot on Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution Tour in 2008, then an acoustic show at the Tampa Theatre in 2012.
"What better place, what more intimate venue, could there have been to admire Cornell’s Promethean pipes, than Tampa’s ornate, historic cinema house?" I wrote in my review. "The stage even looked like a painting, with the white-clad Cornell perched in the center, flanked by seven guitars, a record player and, for reasons that went unexplained, a single red telephone; all framed by the Tampa Theatre’s merlot curtains and opulent décor. And yet this was no whispering gallery. For two hours, Cornell played to a loud and loose crowd, taking requests, bantering and performing songs from every epoch of his multiplatinum career."
For the next few years, Cornell would bring his solo show back through Tampa Bay several times. He booked a show at the Mahaffey Theater in 2013, canceled it at the last minute due to illness, but made it up in October 2015. He'd play one more solo show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in 2016.
"The stripped-down acoustic set allowed reinvention and authentic arrangements to songs he'd sang 500 times," reviewer Stephanie Bolling wrote of that 2015 Mahaffey gig. "Fell on Black Days became hopeful; Black Hole Sun less spooky and more chaotic; Call Me A Dog felt like spoken word. A heavily distorted and pulsating Blow Up the Outside World symbolically conveyed all the anger and love in one better-than-album cut. His penetrating raw vocals and gritty guitar riffs on Hunger Strike unleashed his unparalleled range in a crisp, ethereal rendition"
But the big news during these later years was the return of Soundgarden.
Four years after reuniting, Cornell's biggest group played with Nine Inch Nails in 2014 at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa.
"Chris doesn't jump around as much as he used to when he was younger, and neither does the band," guitarist Kim Thayil told me with a laugh in a 2014 interview. "I never really jumped around as it was. Maybe I move more."
Even without drummer Matt Cameron in the fold (he was off on his day job in Pearl Jam) it was thrilling to see them together again after all these years -- or in my case, for the first time ever, finally able to cross them off the top of my personal bucket list.
"This is the 20th anniversary of landmark album Superunknown, and while its big hits (Black Hole Sun, Spoonman, Fell On Black Days) got their due on Monday, so did the rest of Soundgarden's catalog," I wrote in my review. "In a break from recent setlists, they skipped a couple of songs from Superunknown to pay homage to 1996's underrated Down On the Upside, including scoundrelly desert-blues jam Burden In My Hand and the grinding, drenched-in-distortion Pretty Noose. Just as welcome were Soundgarden's pre-Superunknown tracks, including 1991's Badmotorfinger's Outshined and Rusty Cage -- the former a Zeppelinesque flex-fest that saw frontman Chris Cornell striking his best rock-god poses; the latter a blast of engine-revving MC5-style punk."
And then on April 28, just three weeks before his death, Soundgarden headlined 98 Rockfest at Tampa's Amalie Arena, kicking off what was to be a long spring and summer tour. Cornell, "shaking tendrils of mossy black hair from his stubbly face," I wrote in my review, "unleashed his banshee's wail on a barrage of" hits like Spoonman, Outshined and Jesus Christ Pose.
"With Cameron (much missed, his chops as Hall of Fame-worthy as ever) and (bassist Ben) Shepherd powering the band’s signature labyrinthine rhythms, Cornell and Thayil raced through throttling cuts like Flower, The Day I Tried to Live, Been Away Too Long and All Your Lies," I wrote. "Cornell’s grinding riffs and Thayil’s wizardly solos drive slobberknockering head trips Black Hole Sun and Blow Up the Outside World, and walloping closer Beyond the Wheel shook the seats in the upper deck, drenching the arena in a mushroom cloud of distortion."
In all, Cornell played at least a dozen concerts in Tampa Bay over the decades, which is incredibly laudable. His time here wasn't all rosy -- Tampa was the home of a woman who allegedly stalked Cornell and his family for years -- but he did show Florida a ton of love over the past 30 years, arguably more than other rockers of his stature.
For Cornell, who had moved part-time to Miami, his love of Florida had a lot to do with the weather and overall mood.
"If you look at the continental U.S., it's as far away as you could possibly get" from Seattle, he told me when we spoke in 2016. "It's not something I would have guessed I would have liked, in terms of the heat and the humidity, and it turns out that I really do. After being here for a couple of weeks, I thought, I could really get used to it."
Florida really got used to him, too. Across Tampa Bay, he gave us plenty to remember.
-- Jay Cridlin