Audioslave remains free

of needed chemistry

February 28, 2003


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 golden god.

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."