February 28, 2003
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
When Audioslave took to the stage at the Riviera Theatre on Wednesday,
the first of a sold-out two-night stand, the Los Angeles quartet had much to
prove and a heck of a lot of baggage to carry.
As a post-alternative supergroup composed of members of two of the most
successful bands of the '90s (former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom
Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, and ex-Soundgarden
vocalist Chris Cornell), Audioslave could not avoid comparisons to the
musicians' previous groups.
Add to this the rumors that swirled around the recording of its
self-titled debut (Cornell may or may not have quit several times before the
band got off the ground) and Rage's legacy as the most politically active
group of Generation X (how would that spill into the new band?) and there
were nearly as many question marks as there were security guards (in the
wake of the E2 and Rhode Island tragedies, concert security was at an
all-time high--more about that in a moment).
So how did Audioslave fare? The results were mixed.
"We're a band called Audioslave," a slim and fit post-rehab Cornell
announced nine songs into a 13-song, 70-minute set. "And we're going to be
in a band called Audioslave for a long, long time."
Perhaps; the band is already slated to be one of the key acts on this
summer's revitalized Lollapalooza tour. But the musicians nonetheless acted
like a transitory supergroup. There was little interaction or visible
camaraderie between the players, and the music felt like one part
Soundgarden and three parts Rage Against the Machine.
This was not necessarily a good thing. While Rage's instrumentalists were
among the most innovative players of the alternative era, deftly merging
fluid hip-hop rhythms and classic hard-rock drive in a way that was much
more imaginative and organic than the many rap-rock bands that followed in
their wake, they always skimped on memorable hooks, and great melodies were
hard to come by in Audioslave's set.
Cornell didn't help matters. His droning, monochromatic and often mumbled
vocals never rose above the mix, and his sullen stage presence was far from
inspiring. For all the little tricks he's snagged from Robert Plant through
the years, as a hard-rock frontman, he is a pale shadow of Led Zeppelin's
Hands-down the highlight of the set was Morello's playing. Decked out as
usual in his Chairman Mao cap, the Libertyville native continued to stretch
the boundaries of what is possible for rock guitar. Sure, he delivered the
rollicking riffs of songs such as "Light My Way" and "Set It Off." But he
also evoked swarms of helicopters, the scratching of a skilled turntablist,
screaming babies and a host of other haunting sounds throughout the night,
utilizing a handful of simple effects pedals and the imaginative
manipulation of his guitar's toggle switch and pick-ups.
What did it all mean? Not a whole heck of a lot. Aside from the subtle
inferences of a song like "Cochise" (which Audioslave saved for the final
tune of a skimpy two-song encore), politics were absent entirely from the
band's set. Cornell made no mention on stage of any of the pressing issues
that Morello has been addressing in interviews, and he never name checked
his new partner's activist group, Axis of Justice, which was relegated to a
table in a corner of the lobby.
I am not holding Audioslave up to a higher standard of political activism
than any of its peers simply because of its ties to Rage Against the
Machine. I believe it is important for every vital and topical rock band to
comment on current events in these troubled times, and Audioslave let us all
down by failing to do so.
Opening the show with a passionate but one-dimensional 35-minute set was
the Philadelphia garage-rock trio Burning Brides. The group only does one
thing--vintage '70s Detroit grunge (every song sounds like "I Wanna Be Your
Dog")--but at least it does this well.
As for safety and security concerns, promoters said city inspectors had
descended on the Riv in force, just as they've stormed into rock clubs
across the city in the wake of E2. But the gig got a clean bill of health,
with security present in record numbers and an onstage announcement before
Audioslave's set helpfully pointing out the location of the theater's
plentiful fire exits, each of them equipped with a so-called "panic bar."