Imagine Led Zeppelin doing a reunion tour circa 1993 (much less 2013), and you might better understand the excitement generated around Saturday's long-awaited return by Soundgarden at the Orpheum Theatre.
A lot of the fans who landed tickets to the instantaneously sold-out concert grew up listening to the grunge-era Seattle hard-rockers on the radio and on their Sony Walkmans -- remember those? -- but never had the chance to see before they broke up in 1997. Even the attendees who did catch them back in the day had to wait an especially long time for the return. The group inexplicably skipped the Twin Cities during its last couple of years on tour.
Whether or not the long wait added any urgency in the performance, the band was certainly aware it had the playing-hard-to-get advantage over the fervent crowd. "How long since we've been here?" singer Chris Cornell asked drummer Matt Cameron, who said 1992 was the last time. Corrected by the crowd -- 1994 -- Cornell replied, "Yeah, still too long."
The band certainly made up for lost time, turning in a 2¼-hour performance that started with Cornell & Co. going way back in time. The first hour of the show was loaded with deep cuts from their late-'80s indie era on the SST and Sub Pop labels, including the pair of surprise openers "Incessant Mace" and "Hunted Down."
Non-diehard fans had to wait it out a bit before the band got to more familiar (but still old-school) territory. "Outshined" drew loud love, and not just for its movie-famous lyric, "Looking California, but feeling Minnesota." The mid-era favorite "Jesus Christ Pose" soon followed -- and resoundingly floored the crowd, reiterating how much Soundgarden (like Zeppelin) requires all four legs to stand up. Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd laid a thundering rhythmic base while guitarist Kim Thayil shredded like lightning and Cornell rained down with his signature wailing and screeching parts.
All those parts reconnected as sturdily as before on the band's first album in 15 years, "King Animal," songs from which didn't arrive until nearly an hour in, starting with the grungy, classic-sounding "Crooked Steps." The album's aptly named first single "Been Away Too Long" soon followed, but the best newbie was the climactic epic "Non-State Actor," which set the room ablaze after the dour older hit "Fell on Black Days" fizzled.
While the new songs didn't do much to update the old Soundgarden sound, Cornell made a point of updating the lyrical relevance of some of the older tunes. He pointed out that the Reagan-era howler "Hands All Over" was about environmental issues that persist today. He also scoffed at "Blow Up the Outside World" being banned on Clear Channel radio stations after 9/11, taking a "stealing it back" stance much like U2 did reclaiming the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" from Charles Manson.
While his voice sounded effortlessly strong all night, Cornell didn't need to work so hard in staying relevant. Soundgarden is permanently part of the rock idiom just like Zeppelin now. Let's just hope they come around sooner -- which Cornell thankfully promised would be the case near the end of the show, before the band encored with the monstrous hits "Spoonman" and "Rusty Cage."
See the full set list at startribune.com/artcetera. Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib