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Jeff Miers: Chris Cornell delivers transcendent performance at UB

Chris cornell 1
(Chris Cornell performs at UB's Center for the Arts on Tuesday. Photo:Jeff Miers)
By Jeff Miers
News Pop Music Critic

During a good concert, if things are going well, you might experience one of those moments when the hair on your arms stands up, you feel a tingle and chill through your whole body, and you are transported to some sort of elevated space. A great concert boasts a few such moments. But when Chris Cornell played UB's Center for the Arts on Tuesday evening, the chills came during opener "Scar on the Sky." And they never left.

Cornell, in the midst of his solo Songbook Tour, offered a transcendent set of songs culled from throughout his career as a member of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and as a solo artist. Surrounded by a gorgeous selection of acoustic guitars, on a stage sparsely decorated with props - a table, a red telephone, a turntablele, a bicycle - Cornell performed what felt more like some sort of sacred rite than a mere concert. His voice, one of the most agile and emotive  in rock history, served as an instrument of elevation throughout. 
The very idea of Cornell performing in the solo, primarily acoustic environment was never going to be a sure thing. Cornell made his mark in front of incredibly loud and visceral rock bands, and he spent an awful lot of time in his early years hanging around in his upper range - screaming, albeit soulfully, atop Soundgarden's bold and groundbreaking psychedelic hard rock. How would he fare in a more rootsy, intimate environment? Would these beautifully bombastic pieces of music make the jump intact from the arena to the small theatre?
Yes, and big time, as it turns out. In fact, an argument might be made that Cornell's songs became even more powerful in the process. Throughout Tuesday's show, we were treated to the singer's mastery of dynamics, his soul-stirring ability to move from whisper to scream with technical virtuosity and a seemingly effortless eloquence. 
From the get-go, Cornell created a welcoming, friendly and open-armed environment. When the lights went down, he strode onto the stage alone, walked to the edge, hopped down into the orchestra pit and shook hands with fans in the front rows. Then he jumped back on stage, and dove right into the humble, conversational banter he'd embrace throughout. "Scar on the Sky" came first, a gorgeously melodic piece with a strong Beatles influence. Immediately, it was apparent that the man's voice has never sounded stronger, as he moved from his breathy lower register to full-bodied, piercing high notes with ease. Cornell's affable, easy-going demeanor stood in contrast to the wistful sadness of the song's lyric, which is essentially a paean to love's ability to endure amidst the ashes. "So hover in the dying light/and we will rip the night/out of the arms of the sun one more time/Close your eyes and we will fly/above the clouded sky/and over the dumbstruck world we'll run," he sang, and the song felt like an invitation, a statement of a theme that would endure throughout the evening. 
"Silence the Voices" was prefaced by a blunt Cornell rap depicting the song's origins in the "rush to judgement" days following the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the war in Iraq, and again, the delivery was impassioned, the singing virtuosic and soaked in soul. 
The set was masterfully paced, to the point where we hardly noticed that Cornell waited until nearly the mid-point of the show before delving into his Soundgarden catalog. Naturally, when he grabbed ahold of "Halfway There," from the band's recent reunion effort "King Animal," and then moved into the epic ode to depression "Fell On Black Days," the packed house exploded. But Cornell already had us by that point - it wasn't as if he needed to play Soundgarden tunes in order to command our attention. That said, versions of "Seasons," "The Day I Tried To Live," and the set-closing "Black Hole Sun" blossomed in their stripped-down arrangements, allowing us to concentrate on the subtleties of the chord progressions, the majesty of Cornell's singing, and the world-weary romantic poetry of his lyrics.
Cornell took a major risk with his "mash-up" of the music from U2's ballad "One," with the lyrics from Metallica's very different prog-metal opus "One" set atop the Irish band's melody and chords. The result was striking, lending a sense of empathy to the bleak Metallica narrative. Again - and this is becoming a bit redundant by this point - Cornell sang incredibly well. 
Other covers included a beautifully rendered "Imagine" and an inspired one-man reading of the Beatles' "A Day In the Life." Jaws dropped, and rightly so.
I've seen thousands of concerts over the years, and been in the presence of singers who number among true rock royalty. But I've never heard a rock singer deliver a more consistently on-point and emotionally invested performance than Cornell did on Tuesday. I'm still waiting for the chills to subside. 
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