Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

– THE BRIDGEWATER HALL, MANCHESTER –

As introductions go, telling the crowd to “Take the bullshit, turn it in to good shit (then roll it up and smoke it)” is a pretty good start. Coincidentally, tonight’s opening act, Fantastic Negrito is also a pretty good start.

Musically, Fantastic Negrito seems to blend gospel and blues and more than once comes out sounding like an acoustic White Stripes.

In some respects it’s a surprising choice of a support act, being of quite a different flavour to the headliner but as a singer, there is more than a passing resemblance to tonight’s main man. Fantastic Negrito has a good vocal range and like Cornell, he has a sweet voice which develops a raw edge when pushed.

Fantastic Negrito never strays far from genuine musicality, but somewhere underneath it all, there’s a definite rock sensibility, and there is plenty of weirdness to keep me interested on the most characterful song, Mount Rushmore.

Like most people of my generation, my first exposure to Soundgarden was watching Black Hole Sun on MTV in ‘94. What was so new and fresh to me then has become familiar and comfortable – which is how I would describe tonight. Chris Cornell is very comfortable in front of the mic, stringing the set together with a combination of humour, anecdote and genuine likeability.

The blurb for this gig describes Cornell in slightly unfamiliar terms, as a “Golden Globe-nominated singer song-writer”, somewhat glossing over his rock and roll credentials – however it’s clear that he has mellowed somewhat in his approach. With racks of acoustic guitars, a comfy stool and a fairly modest banner adorning the stage, he’s clearly not trying to paint himself as an edgy rock star any more (if he ever did).

But is rock and roll all about spiky black guitars, huge amps and distortion? Or is it about shredding a solo on the cello, like Cornell’s part-time accompanist Brian does on several occasions tonight? OK, pretty clearly it’s the first one, but Brian is still pretty cool.

He’s someone who got involved with the project by sending over recordings of his Soundgarden arrangements which were so impressive that Cornell invited him to play at one of his US shows – and he’s since become a regular feature of the show.

This openness to collaboration was on show tonight, too when a member of the audience was invited up to play mandolin – and “crushed it”. Very impressive – but I have to say, James, turning up to a gig with an A3 printed sign pleading to play mandolin is also not very ‘rock n roll’…

Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell

What is rock and roll, however, is when Chris Cornell plays an instrumental vinyl of one of his own songs (Misery Chain, from the soundtrack to 12 Years a Slave) and sings along to it. Heath-Robinson karaoke at the Bridgewater Hall in front of two thousand-plus people is so unthinkable as to be subversive.

A partly re-written cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ [Back]’ addresses modern issues like the 1%, like 24 hour fear-mongering news coverage and the continued rise and political abuses of the American right, making a strong contrast with the frame of one of the songs so emblematic of the liberalisation and civil rights movement of the 60’s.

Beyond my sentimental attachment to them, I think tonight’s covers of the old Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog songs have more impact as they seem to have additional distinctive melody and hooks to them. I think this probably comes from distilling the work of a whole band down to a single guitar and vocal part (or with the addition of one cello) – rather than starting the writing process from the ground up with just an acoustic guitar. The solo songs are tighter but do sometimes suffer a little for their simplicity, in comparison to some of the other material – though of course they lend themselves better to this type of performance.

Of course, there are many full-band songs which wouldn’t work in this arrangement, and Black Hole Sun comes closest to missing the mark tonight, though it’s certainly not as bad as all that. Between missing a variety of instruments, and trying to re-create layered vocal parts on his own, the song doesn’t quite measure up to the dizzy heights of the original – though all this really does is throw in to relief how effective Cornell is on his own, that songs like Fell on Black Days, Say Hello to Heaven, Hunger Strike, Seasons and Wooden Jesus amongst others are rendered so well, and come across so powerfully.

A lot of credit goes to accompanist Brian, whose cello playing is the concrete that builds the foundations of the older songs, giving them depth, melody and rhythm that it’s nigh-impossible to re-create on acoustic guitar alone.

I am blown away by a cover of the Beatles Day in the Life where the cello works perfectly in bringing the sound of the orchestra to the bridges between the very different sections – but all the key elements of the original are here in this very ambitious and hugely well-rendered cover.

I get a real laugh when Cornell introduces a cover of U2’s One – but in the telling of how he came to cover the song, he gradually reveals that the lyrics are not Bono’s – but the lyrics of Metallica’s One. I was going to write that it is “pretty damn decent” but actually, it’s bloody brilliant, and sums up the quiet humour of the man.

Still writing great music like tonight’s show-stopper Higher Truth in his 50s, it seems undeniable that Chris Cornell (along with Dave Grohl) has emerged as one of few true greats to come through the Seattle scene of the 90’s which was tragically robbed of so many of its leading lights almost as soon as it began. Watching him tonight is a quiet revelation, as every song is well-chosen, expertly arranged and brilliantly executed.

FANTASTIC NEGRITO Official | Facebook | Twitter

CHRIS CORNELL Official | Facebook | Twitter

I've been playing bass guitar and guitar for over half my life. I last played bass in in a band called Electromotive and as a singer-songwriter I have written songs about cheese and vajazzles (separate songs!). I started out listening to 60s, 70s and 80s rock as a kid and I was in to grunge and U.S. punk and ska in the 90s. Since then, I've broadened my tastes and I like the best of all styles of music, even country. I've been writing for Silent Radio since it started.