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Chris Cornell at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, 10/30/13

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Chris Cornell
With Bhi Bhiman
O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, St. Paul
October 30, 2013

Eight months after Soundgarden's electrifying reunion show at the Orpheum Theatre, Chris Cornell returned to the Twin Cities to play a sold-out O'Shaughnessy Auditorium. The raucous bombast of Cornell's back catalog of hits was mostly stripped away for this solo, acoustic Songbook tour stop. Still, the 29-song, over two-and-a-half hour performance took on a delicate new life of its own, with Cornell's howling vocals carrying the tracks in new directions while paying tribute to artists who have inspired him in the past.

Cornell set a festive vibe in St. Catherine's regal theater by rolling onto the stage on a custom-built bike designed for him by a fan. And when a standing ovation greeted him, he warmly admitted that "The night is off to a good start. So, I'm just going to do some songs for you -- that's all that's going to happen." And that proved to be more than enough for the roomful of boisterous, supportive (and occasionally obnoxious) fans who filled the place.

The beginning of the set was a bit rocky, though. He started with some lesser-known selections from his songbook with "Scar on the Sky," "Two Drink Minimum," and "Dandelion," and none found a spark. Cornell did pull off something quite riveting early in the set, dropping the needle on a record and singing along to an instrumental version of "Silence the Voices."

Cornell explained that singing along to songs on vinyl is what first hooked him on music, and why not take things full circle by incorporating that into his live performance. He also joked that, "I found out that when you're not pressing 3,000 or more LPs at a time, things get a lot more expensive. So, to press that one record, all on its own, was the most expensive fucking record I've ever bought it my life. But it's worth it."

Cornell introduced "Original Fire" by explaining that Seattle is a provincial town, and early on they were inspired by what was happening in Minneapolis -- all of the "indie-underground shit" that was coming out of our scene. A tender, lovely take on "Sunshower" was an early set highlight, as was "Sweet Euphoria," which Chris played to satisfy a request from the crowd, a troubling trend that would continue all night long, as many fans in the auditorium shouted songs out constantly whenever there was a break in the music. But Cornell handled it casually.

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After "Fell on Black Days," which found the stage appropriately blacked out in sheer darkness, the show truly caught fire, with "Seasons" quickly flowing into a soaring rendition of "The Day I Tried to Live." Even the somewhat overwrought Audioslave hit "Like a Stone" took on a vibrant new life with its sonic effects are stripped away.

"When I'm Down" proved to be a showstopper, with Cornell once again putting a record down on the turntable to provide an aural accompaniment to his vocals. He explained that the musician Natasha Shneider (from the band Eleven, as well as a former touring member of Queens of the Stone Age) played a gorgeous piano version of that track, and when she died, he decided he would sing along to it as a lasting tribute. Cornell prowled the front of the stage, completely lost in the raw emotions of the song while Shneider's swelling piano strains filled the room.

Cornell was in good spirits all night long, telling humorous stories before nearly every song. He shared that "Can't Change Me," was the last song that he wrote for Euphoria Morning, and how it was a "nice, good-natured way to tell everyone close to me to fuck off." And how, at the time, despite the fact that he was a drunk, he was still really responsible, but that all changed as his life took a darker turn. A rousing call for "Spoonman" was then met with laughs by Chris, who teased, "I was going to play that, but now I feel like I don't have to."

The night's first Temple of the Dog song finally arrived in the form of "Wooden Jesus," a brazen move by Cornell considering he was in St. Kate's, but the version was amazing. That led into Pearl Jam's "Footsteps," which Cornell just played with the Avett Brothers on Jimmy Fallon's show. It didn't appear on the printed setlist (which Cornell changed considerably as the night went on), and proved to be another gorgeous moment in an evening full of them.

Another Temple track followed, with Chris clearly in the zone at this point, as "All Night Thing" sounded resonant and divine in the intimate room. He then brought out opener Bhi Bhiman to sing with him as he kept the Temple vibes flowing, as the pair sang a duet on "Hunger Strike" that had the crowd singing right along. A request for Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" was satisfied exquisitely, before Cornell brought out his guitar tech to play with him on "Never Far Away." The main set then ended with a pair of Audioslave songs, "Doesn't Remind Me" and "Be Yourself," which both sounded wonderful when reduced to simple acoustic arrangements.

After a brief encore break, the standing ovation eventually coaxed Cornell back out for a few more songs. He started with a bleak new song called "Misery Chain," which was written for an album of songs inspired by the movie 12 Years a Slave, curated by John Legend. It was a rather melancholy way to start the encore, but things picked up with a rousing version of Soundgarden's "Zero Chance." Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" started a string of stellar covers which dominated the encore, including "Dear Prudence," with Cornell crafting some haunting effects to accompany his deft guitar work.

The stage was again darkened for a mercurial version of "Black Hole Sun," with Cornell's piercing vocals ringing out vibrantly throughout the room. After thanking the crowd affectionately, Cornell ended the night with a hopeful cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," which brought the lengthy show to a graceful finish, but not before Cornell could play DJ one last time. Chris dropped the needle on another vinyl record, which played him off stage to a well-earned standing ovation.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias:
I first saw Soundgarden live in 1992 (with Swervedriver and Monster Magnet!), and have been a massive fan of Cornell and the rest of the band ever since. Though there were moments -- specifically the John Varvatos ads and ill-fated collaboration with Timbaland -- that I doubted Chris just a bit.

The Crowd: Filled to the rafters with aging grunge fans out to get their drink on on a Wednesday night.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Redemption Song!" request from the guy seated right next to me, which Cornell actually played for him. His odd request for "Better Man"(?!) later in the night was wisely ignored, however.

Random Notebook Dump: Opener Bhi Bhiman put on an entertaining and engaging 35-minute set that showed off his clever lyrics ("What you talking about business trips for, you work at the mall") and dexterous guitar work. His stirring original numbers like "Eye on You," "Crime of Passion," and "Guttersnipe" certainly garnered him some new fans in the full-house, while his dynamic cover of Dire Straits' "Walk of Life" had us all whistling and singing right along with him.

Random Notebook Dump II: On a spartan stage filled with only guitars and a turntable, there was an ominous red bat-phone placed on a table near Chris, which he thankfully never had to use to call in reinforcements during the performance. But we were all left wondering exactly what the phone was there for.

Setlist
Scar on the Sky
Two Drink Minimum
Silence the Voices
Dandelion
Getaway Car
Original Fire
Sunshower
Sweet Euphoria
Halfway There
Fell on Black Days
Seasons
The Day I Tried To Live
Like a Stone
When I'm Down
Can't Change Me
Wooden Jesus
Footsteps (Pearl Jam)
All Night Thing
Hunger Strike
Redemption Song (Bob Marley)
Never Far Away
Doesn't Remind Me
Be Yourself

Encore
Misery Chain
Zero Chance
Billie Jean (Michael Jackson)
Dear Prudence (The Beatles)
Black Hole Sun
Imagine (John Lennon)