Live albums can be notoriously hard to review. After all, they’re usually the mixture of a band’s finest songs -“best of” moments carved out in time – and it’s hard to complain about some of the most iconic and revered songs in an artist’s discography. It’s also difficult to encapsulate the power of a live performance when the listener isn’t there to witness it themselves. As great as the best live album might sound, it still pales in comparison to the real thing. To see it is to believe it.
Soundgarden’s first-ever live album, Live on the I-5, has three things which make it stand out from other releases of its kind, right off the bat. For one, this is the first material Soundgarden has released since their breakup in 1997 (not counting last year’s resurrected “Black Rain”), which makes it automatically appreciated by any self-respecting fan. Second, the recordings were all captured during a slice of their 1996 tour, back when Chris Cornell’s voice was at its most powerful and the band still produced an aura of unity. Third…well, it’s Soundgarden. To say they were one of the strongest purveyors of grunge may sound outdated now, but there’s no denying the band’s near legendary place in that particular music scene.
The album title takes its name from Interstate 5, which runs up the West coast. The recorded shows all fall somewhere along that road, including Vancouver, BC, their hometown of Seattle, WA, Oakland and Del Mar, CA, and Salem, OR. Aside from playing a lot of their hits, such as the energetic “Spoonman” (in Del Mar), a raucous “Rusty Cage” (in Vancouver, BC), and the schizophrenic “Jesus Christ Pose” (in Oakland), there are some unusual twists and turns. A successfully slinkier version of “Black Hole Sun” (performed in Seattle), and a frenzied rendition of “Ty Cobb” come to life, while a slowed-down cover of “Helter Skelter” and a version of The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” give fans some “new” material to feast their ears on.
Cornell’s voice sounds noticeably rough and broken at parts (“Let Me Down” comes to mind), but, for the most part, he manages to maintain his famous guttural wail throughout. The sound is also exceptionally well-mixed, and the output from the audience never overpowers the songs. Instead, it adds just enough excitement and atmosphere. The only caveat here is that the recordings were done at different shows during the tour, which can hamper any feelings of continuity. Luckily, these recordings flow together nicely for the most part, at times giving the impression that they could have been recorded in one place, at one time.
There’s nothing too exceptional about Live on the I-5, but given that this is the first new release from the recent reincarnation of Soundgarden, it’s worth a listen. Plus, knowing that the band is working on new material, it’s just enough to tide over the band’s patient fanbase while still keeping people on their toes.