It turned out Soundgarden’s performance of its iconic “Superunknown” album on Thursday night (March 13) at the South By Southwest iTunes festival really was the first time the group had done that.
Frontman Chris Cornell told the fired-up audience at ACL Live at Moody Theatre that the Seattle quartet had not managed to rehearse the album in sequence yet, so the show was its actual first stab at it. And the good news is it went as well as Soundgarden or its fans could have hoped, as the group — which was also making its first SXSW appearance ever — blazed through the 15 tracks with ferocious enthusiasm. They stayed largely faithful to the familiar arrangement, adding a few extra touches — such as extending the instrumental “Half” — and leaving the crowd feeling like it had just seen something of historic import.
Cornell told Billboard earlier in the day that the idea for a “Superunknown” show came about after the group put together some special 20th anniversary deluxe editions that will come out June 3. “It’s the idea of the reissue and recognizing it as an anniversary, which I don’t think is our instinct, ever,” Cornell explained. “But it seemed kinda to make sense for this album. If you can single out any of our albums as being, like, the most iconic one, it’s obviously this one. I think it’s an accomplishment, and I’m proud we did it. So it’s kind of a cool thing to do and concentrate on.”
There was one unexpected revelation in preparing “Superunknown” for performance, however; the varied keys of the songs meant Cornell and Kim Thayil would have to change guitars between every song — something the frontman apologized to the iTunes Festival crowd for before the show. Earlier in the day he noted, “When you start with the tunings it seems like a more disjoined album than it really is when you play it in order, because each tuning has its own personality. But the whole album seems to flow naturally, but when you look at it closer it seems less fluid in a way.”
That was hardly evident during the performance, which was accented by a series of visuals that ranged from a sedate nature scene for “Fell On Black Days” to trippy for “Let Me Drown” and the title track. Soundgarden was on fire from note one, and with “My Wave” and “Fell on Black Days” falling second and third in the sequence, it almost felt like the show was backwards and the encores were coming first.
And while the likes of “Black Hole Sun,” a pounding “Spoonman” and “The Day I Tried to Live” certainly enjoyed their stature as enduring favorites in Soundgarden’s repertoire, Thursday’s format was a welcome reminder of the rest of the album’s material — which hardly sounded dated and even felt fresher for their relative absence over the years. Cornell joked before the particularly rare “Limo Wreck” that “it got credit for us prophesizing a lot of disasters that came after, like Nostradamus. It’s true; we are prophets.” A dirgey “Head Down,” a propulsive “Mailman” and the late-album segment of the punky “Kickstand,” the stoner anthem “Fresh Tendrils,” the “4th of July,” “Half” and an epic “Like a Suicide” was a nostalgic reminder of why “Superunkown” achieved classic status — and why Cornell said Soundgarden is certainly open to playing it more this year, perhaps during its upcoming Lollapalooza dates in South America or for a summer tour the group teased on Twitter earlier in the week. Soundgarden is slated for a more standard playlist at a Guitar Center Session on Friday night at on the rooftop of Austin’s Starr Building.
Soundgarden’s openers got the third night of the iTunes Festival off to a strong – and diverse – start. Capital Cities’ brand of frothy dance music seemed out of place but was well-received, with a lengthy “Kangaroo Court” establishing the Los Angeles quartet’s musical cajones and a medley of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Weezer’s “Undun (The Sweater Song)” spotlighting its cleverness. Capital Cities also used the occasion to introduce a brand new song and upcoming single, “One Minute More.” Britain’s Band of Skulls, meanwhile, gave Soundgarden a run for its money in the heavy department with the bluesy rock flavors of its nine-song set, highlighted by older favorites such as “Light of the Morning” and “Death By Diamonds as Pearls” along with selections from its forthcoming (April 1) new album “Himalayan.”
Pitbull and Zedd headline the fourth night of the iTunes Festival on Friday, while Keith Urban and Willie Nelson wrap things up on Saturday. All of the performances are being streamed live via the iTunes store and archived for on demand viewing.