Soundgarden Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, ON, November 16

Soundgarden Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, ON, November 16
Photo: Fil ZuZarte
One of the many things Audioslave got wrong was not utilizing Chris Cornell's dynamic voice to its full potential. Whether that was by choice or a product of his former bandmates' songwriting style, not letting a frontman of Cornell's calibre wail is like asking Slayer to tone it down. It defeats the purpose.

This was abundantly clear as Cornell sang the chorus to "Outshined," the second song of the reunited Soundgarden's intimate Toronto appearance to promote their new LP, King Animal. Decked out in dark jeans and a white V-neck tee, the guy still has the chops.

But looking at photographer Charles Peterson's kinetic photos from the Seattle scene's late '80s heyday, Soundgarden shows look like frenetic affairs, Cornell's shirtless body and long curls splayed across the stage or thrashing in time to the music. In practice, however, both prior to their 1997 split and now, the band are a pretty tame band onstage. When not encumbered by a guitar, as he was on opener "Flower," Cornell looked lost. Guitarist Kim Thayil's and bass player Ben Shepherd's indifferent expression didn't help.

However, the quartet (rounded out by drummer Matt Cameron, who also plays in Pearl Jam), all hovering around 50 years old, played for an astonishing hour and 45 minutes before even taking a break. They leaned hard on material from King Animal, an album that sounds so much like a Soundgarden record is supposed to sound, it's as if the songs were written by a grunge-rock algorithm that simultaneously sapped away everything that was interesting and tuneful from the group.

The riff-heavy choices didn't lose the packed crowd, though, and the band dug deep to round out their 22-song main set. "Loud Love," "Blow Up the Outside World" and "The Day I Tried to Live" all made appearances. "Hands All Over" from 1989's Louder Than Love was an early highlight, while "Burden in My Hand" got the evening's most enthusiastic sing-along.

Unfortunately, the sludgy mix buried many of Cornell's vocals and many of the Thayil's leads, ensuring that the swirling psychedelic vibe that always separated Soundgarden from their peers and imitators was rendered a bottom-heavy mess.

The night peaked with "Rusty Cage" (Cornell kept his shirt on) before the group ended with the new, Tom Waits-y tune "Rowing." They returned for a perfunctory run through "Black Hole Sun," which sounded as dull as it does the umpteenth time you've heard it on the radio, and ended the encore with Ultramega OK's "Incessant Mace," furthering lowering the crowds energy level.

Everything seemed ripe for the band to return again for "Jesus Christ Pose," as they've done regularly on this tour, but the stage lights went up and the evening was over. It wasn't the mind-blowing experience many in the mostly over-30, male audience wanted, but 25 years into their career, Soundgarden still know how to satisfy.

To see Exclaim!'s Soundgarden photo gallery, courtesy of Fil ZuZarte, head here.