Friday, July 22, 2011


Soundgarden / The Mars Volta
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, San Francisco
July 21, 2011

The exciting sequel to Grunge Lives In Our Hearts!

Umlaut has been on somewhat of a hiatus recently... Not hitting as many shows... and hitting a patch of writer's block because I've had to write a couple of "serious" pieces that are being published between now and the end of the year. A couple of weekends back I found myself on The List (THANKS to Tour Manager Doug for getting me sorted...) for this year's Mayhem Festival (co-headlined by the truly awful duo of Disturbed and Godsmack). It was a fun afternoon in the sun seeing local heroes Machine Head and Testament (who only played the 2 Cali Mayhem shows) as well as Megadeth. However, I wasn't inspired to rant about it... Sorry. Machine Head were great on the main stage... Megadeth had just flown in from Europe and their sound sucked but Mustaine's hair looked fabulous as always... and Testament ruled the day headlining on a GA side stage. They opened with 'Over The Wall' and it was solid mayhem for their set. However, Mayhem Fest 2011 wasn't nearly as epic as Mayhem Fest 2009 had been. Anyway, that was almost 3 weeks ago...

I hadn't set foot inside the Bill Graham Civic since that Tenacious D. show in 2006. While the building has more than its share of San Francisco concert history (The Who, The Clash, U2, and Metallica among others have headlined there over the decades) it's always been a venue that's sucked because it's basically a concrete box where decent sound goes to die. I'll also be blunt and say I was not caught up in the hype of a Soundgarden reunion. I liked the band back in The Day.. saw them a bunch of times.. but I burned out on them. I also saw Cornell with Audioslave and it was just okay and not the Second Coming of Rock. I also had gone through a phase where I was WAY into Mars Volta when their Frances the Mute album was out... but I burned out on them too. So, basically, I went into this show with the mindset of a jaded old motherfucker.

The Mars Volta hit the stage right around 7:30pm and for the next 45 minutes played a game of hacky sack with the ears of the half full Civic. Since I haven't followed the band in recent years I didn't recognize any of the songs but Omar was his usual nerd Guitar God self and Cedric worked the stage in his usual manner: like a cocky James Brown impersonator on meth.

Quote Of The night: "When I think of S.F. I think of Full House. Full. Fucking. House." - Cedric of The Mars Volta

A good opening set that sort of made me want to check out Mars Volta's recent stuff.. but we'll see. During Mars Volta's set the floor was only 1/3 full and the balcony even more empty... but as the stage was being changed over between bands the floor was suddenly packed and the balcony very full as well. I then remembered that there were ALOT of people in the audience who were teenagers or younger when Grunge was King who had never seen Soundgarden; a sobering reality check for this Jaded Old Fart. Yes, Umlaut was into the Grunge... and I will argue forever that it was the bullshit Hair Metal bands that destroyed 80's Metal and not Grunge.

Anyway, after the Stooges songs '1969' and 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' played over the PA, the houselights switched off, the stage lights went up, the crowd screamed, and it was time to see if Grunge still lives in our hearts here in the 21st Century. The answer came as Soundgarden walked onstage in the Bay Area for the first time since 1996 and lurched into 'Searching With My Good Eye Closed' and then straight into 'Spoonman'.

It was a good start, but the following one-two punch of 'Room A Thousand Years Wide' (my favorite Soundgarden song..) into 'Jesus Christ Pose' made me wonder where my old flannel was these days. Both versions of these songs were pretty magnificent... I was upstairs and, unlike at Soundgarden's last Bay Area show (Henry J. Kaiser Center, Oakland - 12/5/96), the sound was near perfect... probably because the PA was in direct line with the balcony. Since local promoter Another Planet took over the Civic they've evidently spent millions on remodeling and improvements; it seemed to me that the ceiling was a bit lower than before with what looked like sound baffling and it also looked like the stage might have been moved in a ways so the room wouldn't be such a concrete echo chamber like in the past. Whatever the case, it was the best sounding show I've seen at the Civic.

[Update: After posting this, I was informed by a member of the Umlaut Nation that there have been NO improvements done at the Civic because no one wanted to spend the money.. So the show's sound - at least from up in the balcony - probably had everything to do with an excellent house and front of house sound crew. Kudos to them... although I have also since heard the sound on the floor was like "dogshit trampled in mud".. So, note to self, sit upstairs at future Civic shows if you want decent sound...]

To be honest, although his vocals were in fine form, I'm not really a Chris Cornell fan; the best career move he's made in the past 15 years was to grow his hair out again. The highlight of the night for me was seeing Kim Thayil playing guitar onstage again! He's one of my favorite guitarists with TONE for days AND he was wearing a Neurosis tee onstage! A very nice nod to The Bay Area, right?. It was also good to see that Ben Shepard is still one of the weirdest bassists onstage, with his zombie-like movements that make his playing secondary at times. I'll also forgive Matt Cameron for being in Pearl Jam (Sorry Umlaut Nation friends who are PJ fans... but I can't stand Pearl Jam...) because his chops on the drums are still solid, solid, solid.

The setlist was a good mix from the band's entire catalog... but I'm completely done with the band's radio hits ('Black Hole Sun'.. 'Fell On Black Days'...'The Day I Tried To Live'...). If I never hear those songs again I'd be happy. Thankfully, Soundgarden has enough less popular songs that make up for the overplayed hits. Including 'Nothing To Say' from their debut EP was a nice touch... as was 'Ugly Truth' and 'Loud Love' from their 2nd album. 'Rusty Cage' was excellent and the main set closing '4th Of July' did the job.

The oddest moment of the night came during the final encore ('Slaves & Bulldozers') when it was pointed out to me via a text (Hey John!) that future Hall Of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson was onstage behind Thayil's backline with his camera.

The Big Unit Onstage
(Photo courtesy of Cable Car)

Actually, not really a surprise since Johnson is a longtime Metal fan... AND he is from The Bay Area.. but still an odd moment seeing The Big Unit onstage. I wonder how good his fast ball is these days.

Tonight was the 12th show of Soundgarden's month long, 16-city reunion tour... 24 songs... Over 2 hours onstage. I didn't have a Grunge Revival epiphany, but it was a great set that I wasn't really expecting to like as much as I did going in. Where is that old flannel of mine?

Number of Slayer hockey jerseys = 1. If you bought one of every Soundgarden merch item you would have paid around $400. On the way back to the car, some pimply-faced teenagers called us fags. I was always more into Alice In Chains over Soundgarden... but ALL of the Cool Kidz know the greatest band to come out of the Seattle Scene is the fucking Melvins!!