It takes a certain amount of what propriety insists we call fortitude to rewrite a Bob Dylan song, particularly one of his most beloved tunes, adding your own lyrics to update the piece for the present day.
But that’s what Chris Cornell did, early on, during an emotionally enriching sold-out show in the University at Buffalo’s Center for the Arts on Sunday. Cornell grabbed Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” molded his own lyrics to Dylan’s melody, and came up with “The Times They Are a-Changin’ Back” – a paean to lost opportunities that seemed to have a lot more than a little to do with the state of election-cycle America in 2015.
Yes, it was a serious gamble. And yes, it worked. Dylan might have smiled, and mumbled something like, “Yeah, that’s what I wrote that thing for. So everyone could make it their own.”
There are a mere handful of singers and songwriters who could feasibly pull off rewriting a Dylan song, and Cornell is one of them. Throughout Sunday’s show, a stop on the tour behind his freshly released “Higher Truth” album, and his second appearance at the same venue in the past two years, Cornell made it clear that, as a singer, he has few living peers. Tackling Dylan was nothing compared to the rest of a set that included new songs, revered pieces form the catalog of Cornell’s “day gig” band, Soundgarden, and impeccably chosen covers.
Cornell, occasionally joined by cellist/mandolinist/guitarist Bryan Gibson, enlisted the incredibly cooperative acoustics of the Center for the Arts to aid him in employing his voice as a multi-octave weapon. He repeatedly went for the highest notes of songs he wrote and performed in the ’90s as a 20-something, and nailed them, often adding a soulfulness born of maturity to what were already dazzling displays of vocal athleticism. And, minus a rhythm section, he took advantage of the opportunity to stretch vocal phrases to their breaking points, squeezing every ounce of available soul and nuance from them.
Opening on his own with the elegiac “Before We Disappear,” a tune which introduces a major theme in Cornell’s lyrics – that we are bound by the finite nature of our existence, and the best way to achieve “immortality” is to build a life based on love and forgiveness – Cornell offered an intimate and conversational gig, one where the self-effacing man speaking to the audience as an old friend between tunes miraculously transformed into the deity every time he reached for a song’s zenith, and nailed it to the ceiling of the Center for the Arts.
“Almost Forgot My Broken Heart,” a new song from “Higher Ground,” found Gibson adding substantial girth to the mix with his pizzicato and bowed lines. Soundgarden’s “Fell On Black Days” revealed that it has at least as much to do with the open-tuned folk as it does the driving blues-metal represented by the original recording. A version of the Temple of the Dog anthem “Hunger Strike” found Cornell handling both his own parts and the lines sung by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the original recording, to applause from the full house; and covers of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” paved the way for a gorgeous rendering of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.”
When Cornell dropped the needle on a turntable at stage right, and the piano chords from the epic soul ballad “When I’m Down” filled the venue, all bets were off. Here was Cornell doing what he does better than just about anyone – bringing the power and stridency of rock to bear on songs infused with deep gospel, blues and R&B traits. If there is a better rock singer than the Cornell who sang “When I’m Down” at UB on Sunday, I haven’t heard him or her.
But that was just the surface. Beneath that thin film beat the heart of a man who pulled from the loam of “ ’90s grunge” stately, profound, lasting and, one is comfortable predicting, timeless music.