As the best Soundgarden live performances prove, the rock legends weren’t simply a band, they were a sonic strike-force unrivalled in music. With dextrous rhythm section Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd providing that all-important bedrock for guitarist Kim Thayil to unleash the deadliest riffs this side of Tony Iommi, and frontman Chris Cornell’s multi-octave vocal range and commanding stage presence sealing the deal, there were absolutely no weak links in the chain.
The versatile Seattle quartet’s illustrious body of work includes highly-acclaimed alt.rock touchstones such as Badmotorfinger and 1994’s formidable Superunknown. But while the band’s studio recordings have enshrined their legend, they can’t quite match the elemental power of Soundgarden onstage. In celebration of this singular outfit, uDiscover Music presents a career-spanning, 15-song selection of the best Soundgarden live performances.
Are we missing any of your favorites? Or were you even at some of the ones we have picked? If so, let us know in the comments section below.
15: Get On The Snake (Whiskey A Go Go, Los Angeles, 1989)
Soundgarden was the first of the Seattle grunge acts to sign to a major label, with A&M releasing their second album, 1989’s Louder Than Love. The group’s new label also gave future Nirvana/R.E.M. director Kevin Kerslake the green light to film one of the shows on the ensuing US tour. Released as the Louder Than Live video in May 1990, the hand-held black-and-white footage vividly captures Cornell and co riding their first surge of popularity. An incendiary set, performed at LA rock shrine Whiskey A Go Go, it peaks with a relentlessly heavy version of “Get On The Snake.” The audio recording was later released on 2010’s career-spanning anthology, Telephantasm.
14: Burden In My Hand (Saturday Night Live, 1996)
As the follow-up to the colossal Superunknown, Soundgarden’s fifth album, Down On The Upside, was one of 1996’s most hotly-anticipated releases. The band trailed the record with the anthemic ‘Pretty Noose’, but also stopped by at NBC’s Saturday Night Live studio in New York to perform a coruscating version of its follow-up single, “Burden In My Hand,” in May 1996. Introduced by Jim Carrey and filmed using split-screen techniques, the Seattle quartet performed with power and charisma to spare, with Chris Cornell looking especially sharp in a black shirt with matching Fender Telecaster.
13: Fell On Black Days (Henry J Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, 1996)
Soundgarden had planned to release their first official live album in the wake of Down On The Upside. With this in mind, they commissioned producer Adam Kasper (Aerosmith, Foo Fighters) to record several of the West Coast shows on their 1996 US tour, on a mobile, 24-track facility. The project was shelved after the band split in 1997, but revisited when they reunited 13 years later. Live On I-5 (the title referenced the Pacific Coast Highway’s Interstate 5) was released in March 2011, revealing that Soundgarden was in lean and hungry live form on their Down On The Upside trek. Several of Live On I-5’s tracks are contenders for inclusion in this list of the best Soundgarden live performances, with this intense version of Superunknown’s “Fell On Black Days” ranking among the essentials.
12: Beyond The Wheel (Exhibition Stadium, Toronto, 1993)
They’d long since proved themselves, but Soundgarden was simply a force of nature as they worked towards their colossal fourth album, Superunknown. All the proof you need exists in this monolithic version of their Black Sabbath-esque Ultramega OK stand-out “Beyond The Wheel” (later released as a “Black Hole Sun” B-side), captured at a 1993 show at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium. Chris Cornell’s octave-defying vocals have to be heard to be believed.
11: My Wave (Jones Beach Amphitheatre, New York, 1993)
This magnificent live version of one of Superunknown’s key tracks later appeared on the album’s deluxe reissue. Again captured during 1993, from a show at New York’s Jones Beach Amphitheatre, this remarkable take of “My Wave” is both joyful and turbulent, with Matt Cameron performing minor miracles behind the drum kit and Cornell’s vocal expertly riding the waves as Kim Thayil throws out riff after riff.
10: Jesus Christ Pose (Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Rapid City, South Dakota, 1993)
Arguably the most visceral of all Soundgarden songs, “Jesus Christ Pose” was always performed live with a manic intensity that matched Chris Cornell’s self-flagellating lyric. While you’re hard-pressed to identify the definitive live take of this exceptional song, this seven-minute blow-out from Rushmore, South Dakota, circa ’93 (initially an extra on the CD single of “Black Hole Sun” and later released on Telephantasm) is as good as any.
9: Searching With My Good Eye Closed (Hype! film performance, 1996)
The looming, Badmotorfinger-era psych-rocker “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” was a high point of most Soundgarden live sets during the 90s, so fans are spoilt for choice where live performances of this song are concerned. The Live On I-5 cut is terrific, as is this version, which was included in director Doug Pray’s grunge movie, Hype!, from 1996, and intercut with a brief interview with Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron. Sub Pop released a spin-off soundtrack to Hype! which featured Soundgarden performing an excellent version of ‘Nothing To Say’ instead.
8: Blind Dogs (Live From The Artists Den, 2013)
Soundgarden submitted “Blind Dogs” for Island Records’ soundtrack to the 1995 U.S. crime drama The Basketball Diaries, based upon Jim Carroll’s autobiographical novel of the same name. While the song was widely acclaimed, the band never played “Blind Dogs” live until 2013, when they afforded it a suitably mesmeric debut during their career-spanning Live From The Artists Den set at The Wiltern in LA.
7: Rowing (The Late Show With David Letterman, 2012)
In celebration of their 2012 comeback, King Animal, Soundgarden played an exclusive hour-long set for The Late Show With David Letterman. They dipped into their back catalog for Superunknown’s “Fell On Black Days” and Ultramega OK’s “Beyond The Wheel,” but inevitably concentrated on their new album. All of its material sounded mighty fine, though the leftfield, loops- and electronica-based “Rowing” was agreeably robust in a live setting.
6: Outshined (Paramount Theatre, Seattle, 1992)
A&M’s initial Soundgarden live video, Louder Than Live, was a relatively low-key affair and, to date, has not been reissued. Again directed by Kevin Kerslake, their second in-concert release, Motorvision, was a significantly higher-profile title that captured the Seattle quartet just as Badmotorfinger launched them on the international stage. Filmed at an absolutely rammed hometown show at the Paramount Theatre, Soundgarden are in electrifying form, with a setlist including superb versions of “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Slaves And Bulldozers” and a truly stupendous “Outshined.”
5: Black Rain (Conan, 2010)
Effectively the song that resulted in Soundgarden’s fully-fledged reunion, “Black Rain” had been demoed as early as 1991, but was only finished by the band and Down On The Upside producer Adam Kasper in 2010, when it was uncovered during a search for archival material. The song was released a single and included on the Telephantasm compilation, while the band’s memorably visceral performance of it on Conan O’Brien’s TBS talk show marked their first TV appearance together in 13 years.
4: Room A Thousand Years Wide/Somewhere (1996)
The 1996 live recordings which were eventually compiled for Live On I-5 also spawned a 2011 Black Friday Record Store Day exclusive, Before The Doors: Live On I-5. A limited-edition orange-vinyl EP, it was compiled from soundcheck recordings from the Down On The Upside tour, but the ferocious versions of Badmotorfinger stand-outs “Room A Thousand Years Wide” and “Somewhere” were worth the price of admission alone.
3: Rusty Cage (Later… With Jools Holland, 2012)
In addition to their widely-hailed Live On Letterman performance, Soundgarden also ventured to the UK to turn in a blinding mini-set for the ever-popular Later… With Jools Holland, in November 2012. They performed a squalling version of King Animal’s “Been Away Too Long” that night, but their truly blistering take of Badmotorfinger’s “Rusty Cage” is the one we’ll still be talking about for decades to come.
2: Black Hole Sun (Live From The Artists Den, 2013)
Even when pitted against a body of work such as Soundgarden’s, a song as singular as “Black Hole Sun” will stand apart. With its dreamy, “White Album”-esque atmosphere and dazzling ensemble performance, the band’s signature hit has an indefinable quality that renders it timeless. It’s always a song Chris Cornell and the troops put their heart and soul into onstage, so it’s no surprise that the rendition Soundgarden turned in for their Live From The Artists Den extravaganza is one of the most memorable of all.
1: Spoonman (Del Mar Fairgrounds, Del Mar, 1996)
One of Soundgarden’s most wonderfully peculiar quirks was their penchant for songs with unlikely time signatures. Indeed, any number of the selections here, from “Get On The Snake” (played in 9/4) to “Black Rain” (in 9/8), illustrate this point. However, their most daring, tempo-defying set-piece, Superunknown’s “Spoonman,” vacillates from 7/4 to 3/4 (during the spoon solo) and back into a slightly less hair-raising 4/4. Soundgarden loved the challenge of performing the song and it became a highlight of their set from 1993 on. This version, from their 1996 Del Mar Fairgrounds show, which turned up on Live On I-5, surely ranks among the very best in their career.