Live On I-5


A&M, 2011

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Released amid a flurry of Soundgarden activity between 2010-12, Live On I-5 sort of got lost in the shuffle between the Telephantasm compilation, the new album King Animal and the two new songs (one for "The Avengers," one a lost ‘90s track) that got rock radio play. This is surprising because the band had never released any sort of live document during their 1987-96 career, and good live albums from ‘90s bands are, frankly, pretty hard to come by.

Unfortuantely, this one doesn't quite make the cut. The intent during the 1996 tour for Down On The Upside was for some of the shows to be recorded for a potential live album, but the band broke up after the tour ended and the project was put on hold. Sound engineer and producer Adam Kasper had flown out to record the shows on the West Coast leg of the tour – the cities featured are along the I-5 highway, giving this album its name – and he put the tapes in storage, hauling them out in 2010 for drummer Matt Cameron, who was instrumental in getting this disc released.

It is clear from listening to these 17 tracks that Soundgarden had played together for some time, yet while the power and interplay is there, the passion and fun seems to be missing for many of the songs. This is primarily the fault of Chris Cornell, who sings as though he is bored by this stuff, although his astonishing vocal range surely would have ineivtably lost its power by the end of the tour. Still, any combination of fatigue, loss of vocal prowess and dislike of fellow band members is bound to take a toll, and more often than not the listener will want to return to the superior studio versions of many of these songs.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The set list draws mostly from Down On The Upside, with equal time given to hits and album cuts from Superunknown, a couple of songs from Badmotorfinger and the old "Nothing To Say," which retains its Sabbath-inspired garage rock power and is one of the few songs that actually defines the word "grunge." In addition to all these great songs, a cover of the Stooges' "Search And Destroy" is excellent; a druggy, wallowing take on the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" is less so, but it breaks up some of the seriousness in the middle of the album.

Soundgarden's best songs are brainy, brawny and never self-indulgent, making the band difficult to categorize and rewarding to listen to. The live versions of songs like "Rusty Cage," "Outshined" and "Let Me Drown" are just as good as the studio versions, played tight and professional, never really reaching outside the performance but never shortchanging the integrity of the song. One wishes something had been done to liven up album tracks like "Head Down" and "Burden In My Hand," and the take on "Spoonman" is difficult to listen to, what with the energy and soul sucked out of the piece.

There are a few highlights that elevate this toward something greater, most notably the nine minute opus "Slaves & Bulldozers," Cornell's brief solo take on "Black Hole Sun" and the near-punk of "Ty Cobb." However, the last song is the best, a stunning take on "Jesus Christ Pose" that makes the case for Matt Cameron as one of the best drummers of the last 20 years. He uses the drums as a lead instrument, daring Kim Thayil's searing guitar fills and Ben Shepherd's rumbling bass to keep up, and Cornell's wail is used to full effect here, creating a monster rock song full of attitude and virtuosity.

Pity the rest of the album isn't up to that standard. Necessary for fans because of the scarcity of Soundgarden in concert, Live On I-5 is perfunctory for everyone else, showcasing a band on its last legs that could definitely play but was rapidly losing the will to do so.

Rating: B-

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