Soundgarden in Toronto: Knights of the Soundtable Ride Again

Last month ended with an all-time pantheon concert, but it started with the realization of what was arguably my ultimate rock n’ roll fantasy: seeing Soundgarden. Pearl Jam in Thunder Bay was a fantasy insomuch as, say, a date with Angelina Jolie’s a fantasy; a Soundgarden reunion was at least plausible as long as its four members were still alive. I was too young for Soundgarden their first time around; they’d already broken up by the time I discovered that there was more to them than “Black Hole Sun.” And while there was never an indication of a reunion being imminent, the faint chance of it someday occurring–the possibility that I’d one day see Soundgarden–made the fantasy a lot more real, and therefore meaningful, than seeing Pearl Jam in my hometown.

And then, suddenly, the reunion happened. The first indication that something might be stirring came in March 2009, when three of Soundgarden’s four members joined Tad Doyle on stage in Seattle and performed a trio of Soundgarden songs (Chris Cornell, who was absent, later admitted to wishing he’d been there, all the while leaving the door open on a full-blown reunion). Then, of course, came Cornell’s infamous proclamation over Twiter, “The 12 year break is over & school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” Knights of the Soundtable was the name of Soundgarden’s long-dormant fan club; apparently Cornell’s intention was simply to announce its revival, as well as to affirm Soundgarden’s commitment to its musical legacy. Pretty much everyone took it to mean that Soundgarden was back together. The reunion shows that followed, including a headlining slot at Lollapalooza, were thus a direct result of Cornell’s tweet.

I failed to get tickets for club shows in Seattle and Chicago, while a planned trip to Lollapalooza fell through. And as talk of future tours petered out–in February Soundgarden announced its goal for 2011 was to make a new record–I was starting to worry that I’d missed my chance. So when the tour announcement came, and when I saw the word “Toronto” and realized that Soundgarden would be in Toronto the Saturday of a long weekend I went numb. Could this be happening? The fan club presale (and yes, I’m a member of the new Knights of the Soundtable) was the following week. I suffered through almost an hour of server crashes–Soundgarden was evidently using Pearl Jam’s Ten Club servers–before finally getting through and…I got Soundgarden tickets.

I. Got Soundgarden tickets.

I was going to see Soundgarden. It was like being back in the Fort William Gardens vestibule and hearing Eddie Vedder’s voice from inside the arena. Understand, this is a band that once meant almost as much to me as Pearl Jam or the Smashing Pumpkins. The fact that I’d be seeing them? It was almost too much.

I was going to see Soundgarden.

Fast-forward to Saturday, July 2. (I won’t bore you with details of the actual build-up, save that “you’re seeing Soundgarden next weekend” was a great motivator during the Ride to Conquer Cancer. Besides, after thirteen-some-odd years, what was another two months?) The day started promisingly, with Roy Halladay’s return to Toronto–a game that also featured a Jose Bautista bomb off Windows Restaurant and Jon Rauch and John Farrell’s tussle at home plate. We then trekked out to the Molson Amphitheatre–I still hate that venue, by the way–and went through the birth ritual of acquiring our fan club tickets. Much of what I’ll remember about the evening is seeing the paraphernalia of the concert-going experience–a ticket stub, a wristband, a t-shirt–with the word “SOUNDGARDEN” stamped on them. It all seemed too unreal; indeed, milling around the Molson Amphitheatre’s floor, which holds a thousand but feels half that size, I was almost overwhelmed by the occasion (“I’m borderline hyperventilating,” I told Pearl Jam Heather, and it was true). The wait was excruciating. Coheed and Cambria delivered a loud opening set–the bizzare arrest and subsequent dismissal of bassist Michael Todd happened eight days later–but I barely noticed. I was about to see Soundgarden.

The Moment, when it finally arrived, was predictably understated. Matt Cameron came out first; I don’t remember the next few seconds, save that an incoherent “YEEEAAAHHH!!!” escaped from someplace deep within me. I was so overcome that I don’t remember much about “Black Rain,” which will forever have the distinction of being the first Soundgarden song I heard live. (In retrospect, “Black Rain” was an odd opener. It’s not the greatest song by any means, but the actual setlist was irrelevant. As I wrote the following day, Soundgarden could’ve literally played two hours of Pink Floyd covers and I’d still be telling you it was the greatest thing ever.) It was followed by “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” which is the song I most wanted to hear, and by the end of it I was hoarse. Cornell nailed the “to the sky” bit at the end, which is what I really wanted.

Given the circumstances it’s difficult to isolate any single highlight. Hearing “Rusty Cage” and (especially) “Jesus Christ Pose” was surreal: those two songs helped define my last year of high school (I used to listen to them on repeat every morning on my way to the gym). I was happy to hear the two Louder Than Love songs, especially “Gun” (which was the sonic equivalent of an elephant stampede). I wish we’d gotten more of Ultramega OK, but the one Ultramega song we got, “Beyond the Wheel,” was stunning (I’d heard the excellent version from last year’s Nudedragons show, but this one topped it; afterwards I turned to the guy next to me and we exchanged the sort of dumbfounded “did-that-just-happen?!!” exclamations that tell you something special’s happened). Even “Black Hole Sun” was good.

Cornell was in rare form. He has a mixed reputation as a live performer; few would argue that his voice in full throttle is one of rock music’s weapons of mass destruction, but he’s prone to missing some of the high notes. Not so here: every one was perfect. Matt Cameron was a machine behind the drum kit. He’s honed his live chops through thirteen (!) years as Pearl Jam’s drummer, but hearing him play Soundgarden’s songs (especially “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Like Suicide”) felt like coming home. Kim Thayil was a statue on stage right, while Ben Shephard skulked like an angry gorilla dressed in black. Soundgarden’s members aren’t necessarily the most dynamic performers, but the sound they create is (to borrow their own expression) total f*****g godhead.

Again, I’m not pretending to be objective here: this concert simply meant too much to me. I think it was great–I’ve seen enough shows to distinguish the great from the merely good–but it really is hard to say. I’m thankful for having had this opportunity, for getting to spend a couple hours with a band whose music’s meant so much to me for such a long time. I don’t know if I’ll get another one (four weeks later Soundgarden played Calgary of all places, but I was already out east in search of the Claw). And so I’ll treasure those two hours I spent with Soundgarden on July 2–two more hours than I ever dreamed I’d spend with them, two hours of a fantasy fulfilled.

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One thought on “Soundgarden in Toronto: Knights of the Soundtable Ride Again

  1. Very good review, I'd agree they were all on fine form at Bluesfest too…To me it was slowly building, and about halfway through the show, I said to myself “holy shit, I'm seeing Soundgarden!”.

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