Committed Soundgarden fans heading into the band's first official tour date in 14 years at the Molson Ampitheatre in Toronto on Saturday night had reason to wonder if Chris Cornell and Co. could recapture the heavy, tightly focused, subtly melodic sound that had made them stars of Seattle's grunge era some 20 years ago. (The group's Lollapalooza appearance last summer had received somewhat mixed reviews.) But from opening number "Black Rain," a molten leftover from 1991's Badmotorfingersessions that surfaced on 2010's Telephantasm compilation, it was clear that Soundgarden was back.
Their rousing greatest-hits set included six more tunes from the same era, nine songs from 1994's chart-topping Superunknown, and six other selections dating back to "Beyond The Wheel" from 1988's Ultramega OKalbum by an ensemble that had obviously put in the time needed to whip its legendarily fearsome,stoner-metal-gone-prog attack and frontman Cornell's high-register vocals back into fighting form.
The 46-year-old singer's crowd-stroking proclamations that Toronto was "the best place to start [the tour], by the way" ("I know that sounds like bullshit, but it's not bullshit") were already unnecessary after "Searching With My Good Eye Closed" had flattened the Amphitheatre into total submission two tunes in.
Then "Spoonman," a demonically sludgy "Gun," and an accelerated "Rusty Cage" that moved into and deftly exited one of several time-and-space-defying breakdowns to come -- each of which signaled the promising reactivation of tectonic bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer/Pearl Jam defector Matt Cameron as one of American hard rock's most gifted rhythm sections -- went off without a hitch and the place went utterly apeshit until curfew.
Nearly two hours in, just as terrifying latticeworks of lightning and a long-threatened downpour signaled the arrival of a major thunderstorm upon the shores of Lake Ontario, Cornell cued up an encore of "Face Pollution," "Like Suicide," and a sagely held-in-check detonation of "Slaves & Bulldozers" with a story about how the song wasn't, in fact, about American jingoism but a Fourth of July night when he and a fellow LSD casualty lost in the woods stumbled upon an Indian reservation where fireworks were being detonated willy-nilly all around them.
Cornell appeared to be holding back here and there to preserve his voice, turning the pop hits "Blow Up The Outside World" and "Black Hole Sun" over to crowd singalongs at moments where he might once have let that infamous yowl loose at full throttle. He gave it up when it mattered, though, uncorking with such classic Cornell-ian might in the midst of a breathtakingly assaultive "Jesus Christ Pose" that Shepherd could be seen nodding appreciatively to Cameron and guitarist Kim Thayil.
Regardless of how the members of Soundgarden might feel about each other privately, those few seconds of unguarded affection betrayed in the heat of the moment suggested that there's still chemistry to be wrung from a partnership that's promising a new album next year.