The man has a gift.
Chris Cornell possesses one of the most preternaturally powerful voices in the annals of rock, and over the years — decades, actually — he’s refined it from the brutal caterwaul of early Soundgarden to the nuanced, expressive instrument that can carry a two-hour-plus solo acoustic show.
This he did Friday night to a sold-out Mahaffey Theater.
The 51-year-old singer-songwriter took the stage clad in skinny jeans tucked into calf-high boots and a ratty (or faux-ratty) sweater. His hair was long. He looked, well, grunge.
The 29-song set deftly mixed material from throughout Cornell’s career. After chatting up the crowd for a bit, Cornell made a statement by beginning with five tunes from his solo milieu, including three from his latest album, Higher Truth.
Although performed on acoustic guitar, the songs were, for lack of a better way to put it, power ballads. They gave Cornell plenty of room to flex the expressiveness of his voice. He judiciously doled out spikes into his raspy upper register, and the intrinsic passion of those moments consistently drew cheers from the rapt crowd throughout the show.
Cornell then ventured into Soundgarden territory with “Fell on Black Days.” I found the stripped rendition lacking, especially the sense of doom the recorded version’s down-tuned guitars dredge up. Similarly, an acoustic “Rusty Cage” didn’t quite work — it missed the unhinged intensity of the original. “Blow up the Outside World” and “Black Hole Sun,” Soundgarden’s biggest hit, fared far better in Cornell’s solo format.
The latter was followed by Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike,” a grunge-era standard, proving that Cornell was willing on this night to deliver the old and familiar along with the new. The set also included three Audioslave songs — highlighted by “I Am the Highway” — for good measure.
Perhaps most intriguing was Cornell’s choice of covers. Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”? Cornell spent a good part of his career dodging comparisons to Robert Plant, but he’s apparently reconciled all that. His brooding version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was probably the set’s most daring tune, even if it fell short. (Something incongruous about the Cornell slowly intoning, “dance on the floor in the round.”)
Guest Bryan Gibson contributed cello and mandolin on a handful of tunes, adding welcome texture, and Cornell punched in some added bass during one spacey instrumental foray. But by and large the show was all about Cornell’s singing, a gift he generously passed along Friday night.