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For both the casual observer and the dedicated follower, it’s somewhat surprising that Soundgarden have never before released a live album. Known for their intense, and often unpredictable, shows, Live on I-5 marks the first time the seminal Seattleites’ live set has been captured on a full-length recording; as a result of the band’s 2010 reunion, a number of professionally-recorded tapes from their 1996 west coast tour were unearthed, dusted off and remastered courtesy of long-time producer Adam Kaspar. Shortly after their original recording, Soundgarden disbanded and, as a result, the fruits of their collective labour have remained unheard, until now.
As Soundgarden’s only stand-alone live release, coupled with an almost mythical history behind its compilation, there is a considerable weight of expectation placed upon Live on I-5. Thankfully, the production is about as accomplished as can be expected from a live album, treading a fine line between crystal clear and brutally sludgy, forming an ideal complement to the diverse alt-rock sounds which the band pioneered throughout their original 13 year career.
Considering the stellar sound quality, it’s disappointing that the actual performances form such a mixed bag. Soundgarden’s latter touring days were a hit and miss affair, largely due to the band’s newfound penchant for a slightly heavier pre-show tipple. Along with smoking, pre-show drinking took a particularly heavy toll on frontman Chris Cornell’s vocals, something which is certainly in evidence throughout Live on I-5: otherwise solid performances of Soundgarden staples like ‘Let Me Drown’ and ‘Outshined’ are damaged by Cornell’s on-off, bedraggled singing which, even here, is beginning to show signs of the larynx shredding intensity that would later come to define Audioslave.
Fortunately, Live on I-5 does not disappoint instrumentally, with three of the Nineties’ most underrated musicians playing with razor-sharp accuracy and unmitigated fury across the album’s 17 tracks. Every member is given their chance to shine, whether it’s Kim Thayil’s frantic soloing on ‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’, Ben Shepherd’s melodic bass augmentation in ‘Burden in My Hand’ or, perhaps the proverbial star of the show, Matt Cameron’s virtuosic performance throughout Badmotorfinger classic ‘Jesus Christ Pose’. Judging from the quality of the psychedelic, extended jams on offer, it appears that the selections for this disc were made on the basis of the most interesting band performance, rather than the most competent. Although this is a refreshing approach which should, in theory, capture the band at their most experimental, these signs of encouragement are occasionally offset by the likes of ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, with its exquisitely elongated middle section already irreconcilably scarred by Cornell’s earlier, cattish, off-key wails.
There remain, however, glimpses of genius scattered across the compilation: in particular, the segue from an atmospheric, loose translation of The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ into Down on the Upside’s ‘Boot Camp’ is nothing short of inspired and serves to tastefully develop upon the latter song’s despondent lyrical themes. In fact, there are a number of performances which improve upon already impressive studio versions: ‘Dusty’ benefits from an increased tempo and, along with Superunknown hit ‘Fell on Black Days’, feels fresh thanks to the subtle nuances afforded by a live setting. 1987’s ‘Nothing to Say’, although the oldest track to feature on this compilation, also sounds like a song reborn, Cornell’s matured, and, here, controlled, vocals finding solace in the unrelenting sludge and crashing cymbals which originally served to cement the band’s place as grunge pioneers.
While it certainly has its moments, Live on I-5 can only be described as a frustrating release; there are a number of impressive and, in some cases, outstanding performances here but the quality just isn’t consistent enough to warrant a 17-track album from this tour. Earlier live recordings have demonstrated why Cornell is considered one of the finest voices in rock but for Soundgarden’s only official live release to display his abilities at well below their best serves as a slight disservice to both Cornell and the band as an entity. That said, Live on I-5 is still a good, if slightly misjudged and mistimed, effort and, regardless of criticism, Soundgarden finally have a live album to their name, even if it doesn’t capture the band at their peak.
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