Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell played his first show at London’s historic Royal Albert Hall in support of fifth solo album Higher Truth, the tour similar in style to his 2011 Songbook tour, with Cornell playing stripped-back renditions of a selection of songs from his Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple Of The Dog and solo material mixed with covers on a range of acoustic guitars, this time accompanied by Bryan Gibson on cello, keyboards and mandolin.
“Royal Albert Hall! I have to confess that it is my fault I’m playing such a stuffy building, I really wanted to play here” the 51-year-old said, grinning from ear to ear, walking onto the Kensington stage dressed in jeans, t-shirt and overcoat and surrounded simply by guitar monitors and acoustic guitars.
Kicking off with Higher Truth material, Cornell said “This is about not taking for granted the things that you really care about because life doesn’t last that long”, introducing Before We Disappear.
The storytelling nature of the show was clear early on as the Seattle native introduced Can’t Change Me from 1999’s Euphoria Morning: “It’s a song where you recognise that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how much you love someone or how much they love you you’re still always going to be the same old fucking idiot that you always were.”
Clearly in awe of his surroundings, Cornell gave away his tour scheduling, saying “this whole tour was designed so that at one point I could hit this one date to play here”. He even highlighted the venue’s grand pipe organ. “Does anybody see the keyboard that runs this whole fuckin’ thing anywhere?” “Fuck it must sound amazing” he continued. “They must have spent a lot of the Empire’s money building this room” he jested, enticing a ripple of laughter across the crowd.
A cover of Prince-penned Nothing Compares 2 U was the first of numerous covers. “I started doing this about eight months ago and I was hoping that is wouldn’t piss him off, but now it feels like a tribute to him” Cornell introduced, Gibson’s cello adding a sombre contribution to the downbeat song, even more poignant now barely two weeks on from Prince’s passing.
Other covers making the set were a re-lyricised rendition of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, which had Cornell strapping on a harmonica coupled with a microphone, allowing him to wander the Albert Hall Stage, Led Zeppelin’s Thank You, made even more special as Cornell pointed out his friend and Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page in the crowd, an odd rendition of U2’s 1992 hit single One, featuring the lyrics from Metallica’s 1988 anti-war song also called One which came about due to an apparent googling error and Cornell’s rendition of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, which featured on his first post-Audioslave solo effort Carry On.
One might even call tonight’s performance of Soundgarden classic Rusty Cage a cover, as the version Cornell chose to perform was itself Johnny Cash’s rendition of the song, highlighting how far-reaching Cornell’s music is and how he’s able to understand and be humbled by another’s take on his own material.
As Audioslave tune Doesn’t Remind Me concluded, I’m sure I was the first in the hall to howl at the Seattle native in recognition as the first few chords to 1996 single Blow Up the Outside World were strummed, the rest of the audience slowly catching on and murmuring rather than singing loudly along with the song, it’s verses quiet even on the original Down On The Upside recording, Cornell covering lead guitar parts with his voice tonight and rounding out the track layering guitar and vocal parts on a loop station to dramatic effect.
Misery Chain had Cornell put on a vinyl record featuring an acoustic guitar and bass backing track, allowing him to slowly roam the stage, crooning the slow blues song. “This is a vinyl record, in case you don’t know what it is out there” he said dryly, removing the disc from its player.
As the Soundgarden frontman plucked out the famous guitar intro to Black Hole Sun, The 1994 hit single easily garnered the biggest cheer of night, and most nights on the tour I suspect, this stripped-back rendition feeling so very raw.
The main set was closed out with a cover of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life, Gibson’s cello helping to add some of the more psychedelic undertones to the 1967 classic. You could tell that this was the sort of track that a young Cornell would have cut his musical teeth on and that he was having the time of his life cranking it out at the Royal Albert Hall, even accentuating the name of the iconic venue present in the song’s lyrics.
While the almost two and a half hour, curfew-busting set, scattered with humorous anecdotes was certainly appreciated by fans who continued to shout “six more songs!”, a lack of hit-mining may have grated on those less familiar with Cornell’s full solo repertoire. This was very much a Higher Truth show, but the overabundance of covers, disparate smattering of Audioslave songs and complete disregard of Soundgarden’s recent King Animal record proved disappointing.
That said, there can be no disputing Cornell’s sheer talent for song-writing, instrumentation and that killer near four octave vocal range which can still hit the mark, Higher Truth itself a stand-out record and not only for being so very different from everything that came before it.
Live review of Chris Cornell @ Royal Albert Hall by Kalpesh Patel on 3rd May 2016.
Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate