Chris Cornell wasn't just a metal dude or a grunge master. He was multitudes, a superhuman shouter and delicate crooner, a creator of immortal riffs and lyrics of pain and defiance, and a restless explorer of sound and genres. His songs reached millions and he experimented in sometimes startling ways. (Remember that pop solo project with Timbaland?) All of it was celebrated last night at The Forum in Inglewood, California, as an all-star cast of rockers, pop stars and movie stars gathered with family and friends for "I Am The Highway: A Tribute to Chris Cornell."
The five-hour concert was inevitably centered on his work with Soundgarden, but also included his fiery years with Audioslave, Temple of the Dog and decades of solo work, from the wistful "Seasons" (sung with notable force by Adam Levine alongside Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard) to 2014's "The Promise" (performed by actress Rita Wilson). It was a multi-layered night of sound and emotion, in honor of the singer guitarist who took his own life following a Soundgarden concert in Detroit in 2017.
The night raised over 1 million dollars for the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation, and fittingly began with an explosive set of tunes by the Melvins, and saw Alice in Chains' Jerry Cantrell and William DuVall joined Temple of the Dog for "Hunted Down." There were also searing vocals from Fiona Apple and Miguel, recasting heavy tunes in their own images. There were too many acts and too may genuine highlights to list here, but here are nine of the night's loudest or most emotional moments, sure to be remembered long after.
Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters were an early, ear-pummeling highlight of the night, with appropriately throat-ripping vocals from the bandleader, starting with Soundgarden's thrashing "No Attention" from 1996. (On drummer Taylor Hawkins' bass drum was a portrait of Soundgarden's Matt Cameron.) But after a new-wave-turned-metal take on Devo's "Girl U Want" (a song covered by Soundgarden), most of the band left the stage alone to Grohl. "I woke up a little sad this morning," he told the crowd, strumming his electric guitar, "because I realized that with all this love, the one person that would appreciate it the most can't be here tonight." He then began riffing the anxious chords of the Foos' hit "Everlong," but as he sang the words, his voice began to crack and fade as he sang: "Breathe out so I can breathe you in ... " Fans sang along to help fill the empty spaces.
Queens of the Stone Age leader Joshua Homme stepped onstage alone with his electric guitar to perform "Rusty Cage," a song from Soudgarden's 1991 classic Badmotorfinger. But as he was introduced by John Carter Cash, it was clear that Homme's performance was in honor of two musical legends: Cornell, who wrote the tune, and Johnny Cash, who made the song his own with a defiant 1996 cover version. But Homme wasn't content to simply scratch out a Western-flavored take, and twisted it to his own ends, slipping in a passage from Sabbath's "Hand of Doom," chopping out its massive riff, and circling his performance back to an essential metallic influence of Cornell's music.
To recreate the hard-hitting funk and rock they explored with Cornell for three albums as Audioslave, guitarist Tom Morello and drummer Brad Wilk welcomed a series of guest singers and players for a five-song mini set. Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler and Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell ripped into "Cochise," as Morello wrestled funky space-age riffs from a guitar with the words "Will Power" scrawled onto the surface. Soon after, Metallica's Robert Trujillo took the bass position while Grohl grabbed the mic for a gut-wrenching "Show Me How to Live."
Jack Black arrived onstage with a bushy beard of black and gray, looking like a crazed, heavy-metal Methuselah to introduce the next act and testify about the Soundgarden singer: "When he sang certain notes, it opened a portal to a different dimension. Sometimes Chris Cornell would sing a note that didn't exist ... Does that sound crazy? Sometimes Chris Cornell would sing a note that was between two real notes and he would open a portal to another dimension. I don't know if that's really true. It was probably a real note. It was probably just a C-flat, but it was the way he sang it that fuckin' ripped a portal to another dimension!"
From somewhere in the dark, there was a downstroke on guitar, and Black began singing a capella: "Spoonman! Save me! Rum-ba-da-ba." He gave a shout-out to his musical partner in Tenacious D., Kyle Gass, high up in the stands. "Hey Kyle, are you there?" Suddenly, Black was standing beside James Hetfield of Metallica, holding his guitar and ready for the Metallica set about to begin, and Black turned toward the room. "Sorry, Kyle. Upgrade!"
Metallica were typically gracious and celebratory in their four-song set, but the leading thrashers admitted to a clear preference from the Soundgarden catalog. "We like the very first album — the first couple," singer-guitarist James Hetfield said. "Nothing bad about the others." (Some fans would surely say the same about Metallica.) The quartet opened with Soundgarden's "All Your Lies," followed by Metallica's own "For Whom the Bell Tolls," as Robert Trujillo crept across the stage with his bass hanging low to stretch out with guitarist Kirk Hammett, before returning to early Soundgarden with "Head Injury." But just as the song began, drummer Lars Ulrich abruptly stood up with a shrug. Hetfield made a joke about being professionals and the band dove right back in. "Celebrating life, all right?" said Hetfield. "Beautiful."
Not all the most memorable moments were strictly musical, as the sold-out room were introduced to each of the family members Cornell left behind. His kids introduced various songs and performers, and daughter Toni Cornell sang Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" with the reggae icon's eldest son, Ziggy, on acoustic guitar. Late in the evening, Cornell's widow Vicky Cornell, who organized the concert, thanked the crowd and the nights performers. "To me, and because of all of you, Chris lives on," she said, "a music immortal whose passion for helping others is more alive today than ever."
Ryan Adams is a singer-songwriter and well-known as secret metalhead, passionate about black metal and other sounds loud and bleak. But for his cover of "Fell on Black Days," he stripped things down to their haunted essence, strumming his acoustic and spitting out the lyrics: "I'm a searchlight soul they say ..." A quartet of strings (plus Don Was on upright bass) soon swelled to match the emotion of the moment. He noted that his performance was in honor of two dudes named Chris: Cornell, plus the older brother who gave Adams his very first Soundgarden album.
There were lots of guitars through the night, but nothing quite outmatched the pure force and fury of "Loud Love," played with layers of swirling, psychedelic bolts of blue by Thayil with guests Morello and the MC5's Wayne Kramer. The trio of players kicked out some nasty jams during this 1989 slab of grunge, taking turns on wild leads, riffs and feedback to build a shattering wall of noise and melody, as the Pretty Reckless' Taylor Momsen wailed Cornell's promise: "There's no time to keep it low/I've been deaf now I want noise!"
The five-hour concert did not go quietly into the night after a blazing finale of "Black Hole Sun" (with guest guitarist Peter Frampton). As most of the musicians exited the stage, Thayil and Shepherd stayed behind. Shepherd tossed aside the mic stands, crashing violently behind him, as he and Thayil stood over their instruments for several minutes of pure noise and ecstasy, reaching into the raw depths of metal, punk and grunge at their core. At one point, Thayil was down on one knee, firing pulsating blasts of emotion from his guitar, while Shepherd pressed his bass against the amps for a fire-hot blanket of feedback, both of them expressing wordless feelings of mourning and resurrection. When the duo finally walked off, the sound continued, as if crying out for more and more.