In four decades of going to concerts and being an avid alt-rock fan, I saw just one Soundgarden show — Wednesday, May 17, at the Fox Theater in Detroit. It would turn out to be the last show for frontman-vocalist Chris Cornell, who was reported dead later that night. Eerily, he ended the show with a song about death, the gospel standard “In My Time of Dying,” famously covered in 1975 by Led Zeppelin.
As Cornell belted, “In my time of dying, I want nobody to mourn/All I want for you to do is take my body home,” no one could have known how chilling those words would come to be, mere hours later.
For me and the few thousand other fans in attendance, this was at the time just an epic concert. From the opening kick drumbeats of the first song, “Ugly Truth,” Soundgarden had the crowd standing, arms in the air and singing along with a catalog of classic grunge songs.
Cornell greeted the crowd, telling us he was happy to be back in the Motor City, echoing the tweet (his last tweet ever) he sent out shortly before taking the stage:
— Chris Cornell (@chriscornell) May 18, 2017
Throughout the show, Cornell was similarly upbeat and excited. This was not a flannel affair, neither onstage nor in the crowd, which included young adults who probably were still toddling, if that, when the band released 1989’s Louder Than Love as well as us older kids who first heard the band on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Cornell sported a black jacket, which he tossed aside by “Black Hole Sun,” the fifth song into the set, to reveal a gray T-shirt. He moved fluidly, bobbing his tight crop of curls, twirling his mic stand, and flailing about with his guitar.
But that voice. Oh, that voice is (was) a golden gift. On Wednesday, Cornell’s lyrics sounded simply spectacular, lulling fans with his dark opening lines of “Outshined” and then delivering the shrilling high notes of staple songs “Burden in My Hand” and “The Day I Tried to Live.” They felt like lightning bolts to the heart.
I don’t want to speculate on what Cornell’s death means for the rest of the band — it’s probably not good. Soundgarden, well into their spring tour, still have six more dates scheduled.
For their part, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, and drummer Matt Cameron played phenomenally on Wednesday as well. Thayil’s rolling riffs, as displayed on “My Wave,” defined this hard-charging show. Meanwhile, Shepherd’s bass and Cameron drums provided the power for much of the set.
As a threesome, Thayil, Shepherd, and Cameron played a brief midset instrumental, showcasing their talents both solo and then collectively, before Cornell rejoined the band and tore into “Been Away Too Long.”
Cornell did take some time to banter with the crowd and introduce some of the songs, such as lesser-known tunes “Mailman” (about a post office shooting) and “Kickstand.” But possibly the most notable moment of the show came as Soundgarden closed out their main set with “Jesus Christ Pose.” At the close of the song, as the music faded, Cornell stood at center stage, guitar in one hand and mic stand in the other, and crossed them to form a haunting crucifix-like silhouette. (And, I’m sorry, while I got many great photos from the fifth row, I did not get one of that.)
After the band’s encore, which included the searing “Rusty Cage,” I left the Fox thinking that this may well have been the best concert I have seen. It was, indeed, a great show. But for me and the 5,000 or so other fans at the Fox on Wednesday, we paid witness to what likely will be the last performance for one of the greatest bands that came out of Seattle in the late ’80s/early ’90s.
And we can say we were a part of the last few hours of one of music’s strongest voices.
Jeff Stacklin is an editor for Yahoo News and produces the Yahoo News Digest each morning. Follow him on Twitter: @jstacklin