Live Shots: Soundgarden at the Fox Theater

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It took Soundgarden a full 10 songs before it began to flex its muscles at the Fox Theater on Tuesday night, before the band dialed in and proved what out-and-out Badmotorfingers the four musicians can be. I doubt that the enamored (and now half-deaf) crowd leaving the Fox would have agreed with me on this point about the band’s early setlist sluggishness. Soundgarden delivered in a big way, and you would have been hard-tasked to find an audience member complaining after the dynamic, eardrum-crippling, 27- song performance.

Even still, the band languished a bit in that first third of the set, partly a result of a muddy sound mix that rendered hard-charging classics like “Flower” and “Jesus Christ Pose” to just a massive rumble. But mostly, it was the stream of tracks off of its painfully tepid new album, King Animal, that kept the early set surprisingly disjointed. 

Yes, you’d be inclined to think that a Soundgarden album titled King Animal might infer some epically heavy songs, the growl of some primordial beast lurching forth from the muck of Puget Sound. Instead, it’s a creature without teeth, a ho-hum late career effort (think Jane’s Addiction’s Strays or the Stooges’ The Weirdness), with long odds on breaking its rusty cage.

So it wasn’t until Soundgarden delved into the snarl and sludge of “Nothing to Say” – off its fledgling 1988 debut Screaming Life/Fopp album – that the band tapped into its nerve center, of biting Black Sabbath riffs hooked around a punk mindset, to the sound of a band formed by a city with a heavy heroin addiction and a weather forecast of perpetual rain. 

“Nothing to Say” stood out as the tipping point, and the band soon gained its momentum, mostly from a big section of Down on the Upside crowd pleasers that took the lion’s share of the spotlight during the latter part of the set – “Pretty Noose,” “Burden in My Hand,” “Ty Cobb,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” and the lesser known “Tighter and Tighter.”

Nearing the end of its North American tour dates, Soundgarden is in serious fighting form these days, a spectacle to watch from song to song, from individual members to the collective sum: Kim Thayil’s livewire guitar work amid Ben Sheperd’s hefty bass lines, all set against Matt Cameron’s furious backbeat. At 48, Chris Cornell’s voice is still (amazingly) in formidable shape, seeming to gain greater strength as the night wore on.

The band closed with a stunning five-song encore of classic tracks – “Black Hole Sun,” “Mailman,” “Hands All Over,” “Superunknown” – that brought the place to a fever pitch by the time it reached “Rusty Cage” to end the night. 

Cornell sang the final verse in a wailing falsetto that tested the limits of the house sound system, as the band pushed and pulled the song to its crashing close, finally driving home what it really means by King Animal.