Reprinted without permission from the Seattle Times, December 18, 1996

by Tom Phalen

It was as dichotomous a pairing as you could have ever imagined, at once implausible yet somehow totally natural. It was THE Seattle Big Rock Show, featuring the two most visible and successful bands currently calling the Emerald City home. No one planned it; it was the result of fate and circumstance, and that was probably what made it work as well as it did: Somehow Soundgarden, mastodonian maulers of rock, and those kangaroo kings of pop, the Presidents of the United States of America, landed on the same bill.

Originally Soundgarden was booked with San Diego's Rocket From the Crypt and Portland's Pond. When Soundgarden canceled last week's shows due to illness, Rocket had to pull out because of other obligations. Someone had the brilliant idea to get the Presidents.

"We got a call from Soundgarden," head President Chris Ballew explained, after first introducing his band as Pearl Jam. "Soundgarden said: 'HELP!' So we said 'ROCK!'" They did. There were a few diehard Soundgarden fans up front making some disparaging gestures, but guitarist Dave Dederer warded them off by waving back in kind.

Other than that, the packed floor appeared overjoyed to have the Presidents in the house and happily pogo-ed to a 45-minute set that included "Lunatic to Love"; "Mach 5"; the always-contagious "Lump"; and a truly arena-rocking version of "Kick Out the Jams."

The Presidents' set brought a lighter more celebratory sense to the proceedings, and it carried through the entire night.

Ultimately, however, the show belonged to Soundgarden. It's been a long time since the band played a real arena show in Seattle. Back on their home turf it was obvious, especially after last week's last-minute cancellation, that they didn't want to disappoint. They didn't.

Chris Cornell, usually a man of few words and hard glares, was practically garrulous. He opened by graciously introducing Artis the Spoonman, who sat in on his namesake song "Spoonman."

Cornell thanked the Presidents, but also apologized for his illness's being the cause of the Rockets' having to pass and suggested the audience buy all the Rockets' albums to make them feel better. He even complemented the arena.

"This is a pretty nice place isn't it?" he asked. "But maybe all the Seattle bands should refuse to play Seattle anymore until we get a new fancy arena. Maybe we should extort the city council, get them to tax all of you so we can build us a new stadium! How 'bout that? If they don't give us the money, we'll all move to Pittsburgh."

The audience was less than appreciative of Cornell's suggestion, jest or no jest. They were much happier to hear that the Sonics had just won a game.

But patter and polemics aside, the band concentrated on banging out a hard, fast, loose set of mostly recent material. Cornell's voice sounded particularly well-rested, strong and fluid with all the high notes in the right places. He also showed considerable restraint. "Black Hole Sun" was done solo and to great effect. Even the hard-core head-bangers were verbally appreciative of the new treatment.

"Burden in My Hand" displayed some nicely contrasting dynamics and a redo of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" was even more menacing by being low key.

But it wasn't all milk and cookies. "Outshined" and a particularly frenzied "Rusty Cage" turned the once-pogo-ing pit into a swarming slam dance. Guitarist Kim Thayil played feverishly, bassist Ben Shepherd stomped the bottom into the stage and drummer Matt Cameron often sounded like a phalanx of cannons. Over the wall of sound came Cornell's wail.

And after a hard year and some hard breaks, Soundgarden ultimately played one of the hardest home-stands of its career.