Friday, August 5th 2011
Trekking to the final show of Soundgarden’s month long arena tour was simultaneously arduous and rewarding. As I became aware that the lush, mountainous Washington forest had suddenly given way to an arid, sweltering wasteland strewn with sporadic growths of desert bushes and pockets of whirling windmills, the sheer magnitude of my surroundings began to inundate my senses. What a peculiar place for a rock show.
We soon descended to, and then crossed the Columbia River at Vantage Bridge, and I once again came to the forgone conclusion that a photo and a first-hand perspective were two very different things indeed.
We forged ahead, passing countless seemingly unblemished soy and corn plantations (which stuck out of the infertile desert landscape like synthetic oases) before reaching our final destination: The Gorge Amphitheatre.
We made our way through the makeshift tailgate party ensuing in the vast parking area and hiked hastily beyond the pint sized second stage (which at this time was inhabited by an abhorrent nu-metal four piece either guilty of butchering Alice In Chains covers or punking Mike Starr’s bass lines without shame).
As we reached the apex of the venue and put the noise pollution behind us, the grassy knoll gave way to the massive main stage (the annual home of the Sasquatch Music Festival), which sidled the edge of the canyon beyond; a stunning sight to behold.
As if the inspiring visual stimuli of a barren blue sky and unpolluted natural backdrop weren’t enough, we still had six hours of rock, alternative, and metal devastation in our scopes.
Fourteen years after disbanding and one year removed from their first reunion gig, Seattle-based 90’s rock icons Soundgarden were set to ravage their home state with Queens of the Stone Age, and the Meat Puppets in tow; as well as a one off performance by Mastodon. East Coast fans must have choked when they realized they were getting Coheed and Cambria instead of these three diverse yet delectable openers.
The Meat Puppets hit the stage at 6PM as the crowd began to fill in.
Oft described as a band that time forgot and most commonly known as Kurt Cobain’s muse when Nirvana recorded MTV Unplugged, the Meat Puppets have always seemed like a band with something to prove.
Their six-song set was a short and furiously coordinated assault. Singer/guitar player Curt Kirkwood is an uncompromising talent. His vocal styling’s sat somewhere between those of Shannon Hoon and Frank Black, and he managed to channel his inner Neil Young while sludging up his guitar solos.
Of course Plateau and Lake Of Fire garnered the most significant crowd response but Backwater (a song which has grown heavier with time) and a cover of The Beach Boys’ Sloop John B were personal highlights.
To this day, I’m still bewildered by the Meat Puppets’ ability to juxtapose raw screaming energy with curiously unhurried tempos (they opted out of playing the hard stuff), and look forward to the possibility of catching them headlining soon.
As the shadow of the main stage enveloped us, giving us a brief reprieve from the intense heat, Mastodon made their way out on stage. Bassist/lead singer Troy Sanders’ humbled facial expression swiftly morphed to the face of a manic cartoon villain as they launched furiously into Iron Tusk and violent mosh pits erupted in the floor area.
The prog-metal explosion endured as guitarist Brent Hinds forayed in to the opening riff of Circle Of Cysquatch, a song highlighted by staggering and intermittent meter changes and the faultless robotic drum patterns of Brann Dailor. The band was visibly energized playing their first show of 2011. With a new album due in September it won’t likely be their last.
The sound engineer was saving the full force of the speakers for Queens of the Stone Age and Soundgarden making it difficult at times to distinguish the conceptual layers of the bands’ music; an unfortunate but common ploy that frequently diminishes the visceral impact of the opener. Fortunately, Mastodon forged on with a searing set, drawing heavily from their best album; 2006’s Blood Mountain.
I suppose in hindsight it was hopelessly optimistic to assume Queens of the Stone Age’s towering frontman Josh Homme might join the band on stage during Colony of Birchmen, but before I had time to express my trivial disappointment when it didn’t transpire the opening riff of Blood And Thunder ignited the floor area once again, sending my thoughts in to disarray as I jockeyed for position amongst the meatheads and rednecks.
The pit audience (now saturated in sweat) began to crunch and compress between sets, and it became more and more difficult to see the grassy incline behind us as people filled the remaining gaps.
Queens of the Stone Age took to the stage as a glimmer of sunlight cut through the stage rigging, engulfing the band and transforming the bottle of Kettle One (precisely placed on the drum riser) in to a miniature vodka filled disco ball.
Drummer Joey Castillo led the way with the instantly distinguishable drum pattern of Millionaire, once again stirring the pit crowd into a fit of chaotic and unabashed hysteria.
Contradictory to recent outings, Queens’ chose to put their self-titled debut album on the back burners and delivered a potent yet routine hits-laden set, likely due to time restraints. But, to accurately contextualize: a QOTSA greatest hits set is like a bottle of cheap tequila…it could have been better but it’s still gonna fuck you up and may even get you laid.
A modified bluesy segue melded seamlessly into the macho riffage of Burn The Witch as the audience harmoniously chanted along with the bass melody before Homme carefully positioned his lit cigarette on the headstock of his guitar and led his cohorts into the seductive and entrancing Desert Sessions hit Make It Wit Chu. The dry and desolate landscape surrounding the venue must have felt like familiar territory to a band that calls the Mojave Desert home.
Keeping banter to a minimum, they stormed through Go With The Flow and No One Knows before concluding with the eternally poignant Song For The Dead, an instrumental showcase and habitual closer.
Taking the stage in the wake of Queens of the Stone Age is no easy task.
As the stage lights dimmed and day faded to night, a thunderous audience rose. Ben Shephard, Matt Cameron, Kim Thayil, and Chris Cornell entered the spotlight; Soundgarden were back.
As they drifted from Searching With My Good Eye Closed to Spoonman Cornell immediately laid my preconceptions to rest. Dressed all in white, he appeared rejuvenated and confident; his trademark vocal wailing was infallible. His voice had vastly improved since his years fronting Audioslave.
Drummer Matt Cameron incited the rowdy audience at every given opportunity. His ferocious and scrupulous skin beating skills were best demonstrated during Jesus Christ Pose. Based on Cornell’s appearance, I’m led to assume he may have been taking his own lyrics seriously.
Blow Up The Outside World and The Day I Tried To Live were nostalgic moments, highlighting my night at The Gorge and providing a conduit to my former self; when my world was comprised of Nintendo 64, Dr. Pepper on the reg, and a healthy mix of Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Our Lady Peace blaring through a shitty ghetto blaster.
With such an outburst of positive energy emanating from centre stage, the sheer lack of enthusiasm from stage left and stage right were sadly obvious. Bassist Ben Shephard and guitarist Kim Thayil spent the majority of the show going through the motions and giving out the impression they’d rather be elsewhere. There must have been something fixating on the stage floor because they both whipped through fan favorites like Outshined, Rusty Cage, and Pretty Noose while staring straight down.
Cornell on the other hand was engaging the audience, grabbing a fan’s iPhone to take a video and thanking the opening acts.
This would have been an ideal time to end the show.
The encore featured a series of prolonged, monotonous and grungy tracks like 4th Of July and Beyond The Wheel before concluding with Slaves & Bulldozers. Looking around, it was evident that people were still hanging on every moment, but I was baffled by the anticlimactic encore.
A five-minute bass and guitar feedback debacle then capped off the confusing encore. Thayil and Shephard stood in front of their amps tinkering with levels as Cornell and Cameron departed. The growing dissonance was a perplexing and deafening way to end an otherwise stellar two-hour set.
Despite the sour ending, it was a brilliant day, at a beautiful venue, and one of the best single day lineups I’ve had the opportunity to behold. We live for shows like this!