How can you hope to fully honor an artist of the magnitude of Chris Cornell in a single evening? As a singer, his octave-scaling voice was beyond peer. As a songwriter, he made his mark time and again with dark, emotive, and affecting lyrics that influenced whole generations and touched the hearts of millions across the world. And as a frontman, well, whatever it is — that indescribable mix of charisma, bravado, mystery and raw sexual power — Cornell had more of it than nearly any human who’s ever picked up a microphone.
The answer, at least according to the organizers behind the I Am The Highway tribute concert on Wednesday night, was to pack the Forum in Inglewood, California with several dozen of the most famous, talented, and beloved musicians on the planet and let them have at it for five continuous hours of nonstop action. The sheer breadth of the talent assembled, across so many genres of music, told the story of Chris’s eclectic, artistic life in a way that defied comprehension. It was the kind of show that his memory demanded. The kind of show that his friends, family and the 18,000 or so fans gathered together in that large arena will never forget.
The whole event was a rock lover’s dream, a Gen-X version of The Last Waltz or the Concert For George. Beginning with the Melvins’ chaotic and extremely loud set — mimicking their opening appearance ahead of Soundgarden at the band’s Motorvision show at the Paramount Theater in Seattle in 1992 — you were taken on an aural journey through Cornell’s unique sonic palate. Metallica brutalized with renditions of early Soundgarden cuts like “Head Injury” and “All Your Lies,” mixed with their own song “Master Of Puppets” because why the hell not? Foo Fighters dialed up one of Cornell’s deep, solo cuts “The Keeper,” before the rest of the band left their leader Grohl alone to dedicate a tear-jerking take of his song “Everlong” to his departed friend. Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme stunned with an unorthodox, solo take on Johnny Cash’s arrangement of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.”
As a spectator, you were hardly given room to breathe before someone like Ryan Adams hitting you with a gut-wrenching, full-string take on Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days.” Or Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile joining Temple of the Dog for “Hunger Strike.” Or Adam Levine using his lithe falsetto to bring Cornell’s solo Singles composition “Seasons” to life, next to Pearl Jam founder Stone Gossard on acoustic guitar. Surprises abounded, and things that seemed like they wouldn’t work on paper turned into some of the evening’s biggest highlights. Jack Black scatting his way through an a cappella rendition of “Spoonman” to kill time ahead of Metallica’s appearance is a perfect example.
The most affecting moments of the night superseded the music however. Brad Pitt was tasked with introducing Chris’ daughter Toni, and though it was just the young musician’s third time ever performing in an environment of this magnitude, she devastated with a tender cover of Bob Marley’s classic “Redemption Song,” accompanied on acoustic guitar by Bob’s son Ziggy. Chris’ son Christopher had the pleasure of bringing out the evening’s headliners, Soundgarden. His eldest daughter Lily imparted some of her father’s wisdom onto all of us: “Success didn’t come from a desire for success itself, it was born from a passion and an absolute love for what he did.” And after receiving an elongated standing ovation, his wife Vicky touted her husband’s philanthropic accomplishments. “To me, and because of all of you, Chris lives on as a music immortal whose passion for helping others is more alive today than ever.” (The event itself raised over $1 million for the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation and The Epidermolysis Bullosa Medical Research Foundation.)
The real meat of the show was delivered during the reunions of three of Cornell’s old bands, beginning with his ‘00s group Audioslave, who the evening’s host Jimmy Kimmell warned was one of only two bands to ever appear on his show and drive their audience so crazy that the L.A. Riot Squad had to come in and shut it down. The reconfigured Audioslave lived up to their raucous reputation with a dynamic run through of “Cochise,” led by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell and Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler. Guitarist Tom Morello played like a man on fire during “Like a Stone,” and Dave Grohl sounded like he tore every shred of his remaining vocal cords while singing “Show Me How to Live.”
Next up was Temple of the Dog — or at least 3/5 of Temple of the Dog, with guitarist Mike McCready and singer Eddie Vedder unable to attend. Both men were sorely missed, but nevertheless, Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament and a revolving set of drummers gamely ran through their most beloved material from that seminal alt-rock album. Among the entire lineup, the name that caused the most amount of head-scratching was Miley Cyrus — her pop background didn’t immediately endear her to a certain section of Cornell’s fanbase — but believe me when I tell you that she blew the doors off the place with her scorching vocals on “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” Not many dry eyes left after that one.
And then there was Soundgarden. After a short video tribute from Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Cameron, guitarist Kim Thayil, and bassist Ben Shepherd emerged together for perhaps the final time onstage to give their musical brother one hell of a send-off, reprising hits like “The Day I Tried to Live,” “I Awake,” “Loud Love,” “Drawing Flies,” “Rusty Cage,” and “Outshined.” The trio were accompanied by a multitude of singers, including Taylor Momsen, Thayil’s MC50 bandmate Marcus Durant, Taylor Hawkins, and finally Carlile again who (with a little help from Peter Frampton on guitar) slayed the evening’s final song, “Black Hole Sun.” Simply put: It was incredible, intense and undeniably cathartic.
I Am The Highway was an amazing and altogether fitting tribute to a generational artist. You could truly feel the love, compassion, and effort that went into every second of the show, from every person who took part in it. And yet when it was all over, after every superstar had their turn behind the microphone, and while Kim Thayil’s guitar continued to blare feedback through the air, you couldn’t shake the impossible desire for the man himself to amble out of the wings one more time to show us all how it’s really done, in the dynamic, stultifying way that only he could. As Matt Cameron said during his introduction, “There’s so much I miss about Chris, but what I miss most is him walking into a room. Chris is with us tonight. He’s got the best seat in the house.” Here’s hoping.