“No one sings like you anymore” was the line that most people picked out when Chris Cornell unexpectedly died in May of 2017, using the “Black Hole Sun” lyric as text on venue marquees and captions for Instagram tributes. It made sense considering the singularity that the Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple Of The Dog frontman delivered across decades of musical output with just his impassioned wail. But the truth is, even when Cornell was alive, no one could quite sing like him either, and few would try, willing to let the Seattle native occupy his own space in the rock world, where aggression and vulnerability could live happily side by side.
As his Temple Of The Dog bandmate (and Pearl Jam founder) Stone Gossard pointed out in his touching speech at Los Angeles’ The Forum last night for the I Am The Highway: A Tribute To Chris Cornell concert, Cornell was “a bluesman.” He had the blues for his entire professional life and he transferred that emotional peril into art until he couldn’t do it any longer. His suicide haunted the evening even if it was only alluded to, with friends and family instead choosing to focus on his musical accomplishments and his philanthropic work. In that spirit, the five-hour concert (!) raised money for causes that were dear to Cornell’s heart, specifically his own foundation with wife Vicky Cornell as well as The EBMRF which seeks to find a cure for Epidermolysis Bullosa.
But despite the fact that no one can quite sing like Cornell, countless artists did their best last night (on an uncharacteristically rainy evening that literally felt like the event brought Seattle to LA) to honor the voice that Jack Black would comment “could hit notes you didn’t even know existed.” This statement is hyperbolic, sure, but if anything, watching some of Cornell’s most talented peers, as well as artists influenced by his output, do their best to sing his songs revealed the key to getting Cornell right: You just have to go for it. Even as Cornell reached his 40s and 50s, and his voice matured, his signature sound was defined by a certain recklessness, of taking huge leaps that other artists wouldn’t even dare. To honor Chris Cornell, you need to operate without a safety net. And at The Forum, that’s exactly what many of these musicians did.
Some of the best were the youngest artists on the bill. Miley Cyrus, hardly the expected Soundgarden fan, would pop up multiple times throughout the night, but none was quite as majestic as joining Temple Of The Dog for “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” As a song originally written in honor of Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood, there was something fitting about Cornell’s tribute being turned around to pay homage to him. And Cyrus seemed to feed on the emotion in the room, letting her rock star inclinations shine in ways we don’t get in her pop and country forms, showing versatility that few young artists dare to attempt. It was one of the few performances that earned standing ovations on the night, and deservedly so, as Cyrus pushed her vocal range to its breaking point.
Miguel, another unexpected source, might have been the most effortless Cornell imitation as he stood as (probably) the most technically gifted singer of the night. And even with many fans wondering who this guy was singing “Reach Down,” the R&B star showed that Cornell’s influence transcends genre barriers and could be heard in Miguel’s home neighborhoods of San Pedro as easily as it could be heard anywhere else with a radio signal. The Temple Of The Dog portion of the evening even got a rousing country rendition courtesy of Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile, crooning their way through the mammoth “Hunger Strike” as if it was born for a rootsy interpretation. No musical subgroup felt immune to Cornell’s charms on this night, as offerings of his songs ranged from the thrash metal of Metallica to the Cash-country of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme.
Of Cornell’s contemporaries, maybe none let it all hang out like Dave Grohl. First, there was a series of deep-cut covers with Foo Fighters, including a rendition of Devo’s “Girl You Want” that Soundgarden also covered. Then there was the requisite acoustic offering of “Everlong,” a song that never quite felt as emotionally devastating as it did on this night, with Dave getting visibly choked up during the first chorus. But maybe best was when Grohl joined Audioslave to sing “Show Me How To Live,” a song that’s eerie message was eclipsed by Grohl’s insane vocal performance, screaming his guts out in the most spirited tribute to Cornell possible. If Grohl left the show unable to speak, it was worth it, as that’s just the way that Cornell lived his life, as if each performance could be his last.
The highlights of the show were frequent. Ryan Adams earned the award of most original interpretation for his take on “Fell On Black Days,” which took some of the best cues from the original recording and translated them into something new and exciting. Fiona Apple brought Cornell into her own universe for “All Night Thing,” making the song her own but holding nothing back from her fiery delivery in the tribute that checked a lot of boxes. Maroon 5 of all people got points for selecting the Cornell solo offering “Seasons” for their contribution, a song that this humble reviewer played at his first (and only) guitar recital and stands as one of the most underappreciated Cornell compositions. And the night ended with Soundgarden coming together for the first time without Cornell, with everyone from Peter Frampton to Tom Morello getting in on the action.
Of course, the night was overcome with sadness. Cornell’s children and wife would all visit the stage at various points, including daughter Toni singing “Redemption Song” with Ziggy Marley, and though each kept with the theme of honoring their loved one’s contributions to the world, the mind couldn’t help but turn to the grief his absence has left. Many people would note how much it would mean to Chris to see so many people gathered to celebrate him, with even celebrities like Brad Pitt and Josh Brolin taking the time to introduce artists, but the sad fact remained that Chris wasn’t there, and we’re just left with these songs and these memories to piece together a legacy.
But for me, when I think of Chris Cornell, it all comes back to the voice, whose existence begged people to persevere. It’s how he lived his life, working each day to keep his demons at bay, and turning his pain into resonant art whenever possible. His friends and fans did the best thing they could last night to keep his ethos in mind: they sang loudly and without regard, knowing that no one will ever sing like Chris Cornell again, but the best they can do is try.