“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.