Cornell, 52, was in fine form and spirits as the Seattle quartet tore through the two-hour show. Though there’s now a macabre irony in the frontman’s choice to slip a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” into the closing “Slaves & Bulldozers,” Cornell was nothing less than ebullient through the night, in good voice — hitting all the expected screams — and fist-bumping with fans in the pit in front of the stage.
He was also clearly pleased to be in Detroit. After tweeting “Finally back in Detroit Rock City” with a picture of the venue earlier in the day, Cornell’s praise for the local fans was frequent and thick. “Detroit Rock City! It’s great to be back here, honestly,” Cornell said after the group started the show with “Ugly Truth.” “I have bragged about Detroit crowds for 30 years… There’s no other crowd that never, ever disappoints.” During the encore, Cornell added that, “Detroit, you guys…show up! I feel sorry for the next place we play… but we don’t have the same expectations.”
Veteran music photographer Ken Settle, who was on assignment at Wednesday’s show, notes that, “I shot Chris with Soundgarden back in the early ’90s, and sometimes he could seem fairly sullen onstage. But last night, during what I shot, he seemed very upbeat, engaging the audience much more than I remember in the past.”
Wednesday’s show was a typically wide-ranging stroll through Soundgarden’s six-album catalog, with plenty of expected favorites such as “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” “Burden In My Hand,” “My Wave” and more. But the group also dug in for material such as “Hunted Down” from its first Sub Pop EP, 1990’s Screaming Life/Fopp, and even deeper Superunknown tracks such as “Mailman” and “Kickstand.” Interestingly there was nothing from 1988’s Ultramega OK, which Soundgarden reissued in an expanded, remastered form earlier this year.
The show will now, of course, be remembered for its tragic aftermath. But Cornell and Soundgarden made his last performance one that will only embellish his legacy as one of rock’s truly great frontmen. Police in Detroit told Billboard that they are investigating Cornell’s death as a possible suicide, though at press time it was too early in the investigation to determine the grunge icon’s cause of death. Cornell’s body was found unresponsive in his Detroit hotel room at midnight on Thursday (May 18), shortly after the conclusion of the night’s concert.
Spokesperson Brian Bumbery called the death “sudden and unexpected” and said Cornell’s wife and family were shocked by it. In a statement, he said the family would be working closely with the medical examiner to determine the cause and asked for privacy.