This month’s Seattle concert listings have a decidedly retro look to them. They are, in a way, a perfect example of Yogi Berra’s comment about “déjà vu all over again.” At the Paramount on Thursday, Feb. 7, is Soundgarden, who haven’t played an official show in Seattle since they first broke up in 1997. On Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Showbox, Mudhoney performs. Though Mudhoney never truly broke up, they did spend a few years on hiatus. Both bands could be straight out of lineups from Seattle’s late ’80s club circuit.
Even more “déjà vu all over again” are the Sonics, headlining the Mudhoney Showbox concert. The band put out their first single “The Witch” way back in 1964, and broke up by 1968. They played one reunion show in 1972, were dormant for 35 years, but reunited in 2007. Their raucous Halloween Paramount show in 2008 brought out every younger musician in town — including members of Mudhoney, and Soundgarden. Now in their 60s, the Sonics are back playing four dozen dates a year, most of them in Europe, where they remain even more revered than in their hometown.
There is, of course, more that links these three bands than the fact that they are all still performing decades after they formed. While there has never been one, cohesive Northwest sound — part of why local musicians always disliked the “grunge” label — all three of these bands are uncompromising, iconoclastic and revel in their outsider status. All play rock that is primarily guitar-based, with punk and garage elements. All use guitar distortion effects, and have vocals that lean toward screams. And all three play at ear-shattering volume.
In the young person’s game of rock ’n’ roll, their success, and their vigor, is particularly notable. All of the Sonics are in their late 60s, and lead singer Jerry Rosalie had a heart transplant — but he still screams like a teenager on songs like “Psycho.” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm is 50 now and could legitimately join the AARP, but he still cavorts from speaker to speaker in his Converse. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell is 48, but he’ll most certainly end up with his shirt off during the Paramount show. Ben Shepherd is the youngest member of Soundgarden, at 44, and the youngest of any of these three bands, but he jokes that Soundgarden won’t ever hold a 50th-year tour, like the Rolling Stones, because he “won’t live that long.”
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But Shepherd might. Age in Northwest rock is subjective, and if the Sonics can still be rocking the Showbox in their 60s, who is to say Mudhoney won’t be having the 40th Anniversary of “Touch Me I’m Sick” in 2028?
The Sonics created the mold for Northwest rock for decades, and even today grunge-era bands cite them. “They were very influential to me,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm says. “They were playing raw rock ’n’ roll, and aggressive rock ’n’ roll, back in the Fabian-era, which wasn’t what was commonly being done then.” Soundgarden’s Shepherd is more succinct, stating, “They were the best band in Northwest history.”
However, the return of Soundgarden may be an even bigger surprise. They broke up in the late ’90s, at the height of their record-selling peak, with some rancor. Drummer Matt Cameron later said they were “eaten up by the business.” Their last show in that era was in February 1997, 16 years to the day prior to their official Seattle return this week.
They did reunite for a surprise show at the Showbox in 2010 (billed as “Nudedragons,” an anagram of their name). A reunion album, “King Animal,” followed, as did festival dates last summer, but those skipped Seattle. Their tour started up this week on the East Coast and is already sold out in many cities, including here.
Though some critics have questioned the band’s motivation in reuniting, only after Cornell’s solo career seemed to falter, Shepherd says their only motivation is artistic drive. “There’s not a one of us who doesn’t do it because we love it,” he says.
Shepherd promises that Soundgarden’s set list will be diverse, with no opening band. “We are going to include things from every era,” he said. “It’s the land of old and new.”
He was speaking specifically about Soundgarden’s plan to play songs from their early career, as well as their new music. His words, though, also describe February 2013 in Northwest music.
At least when it comes to rock ’n’ roll, Seattle is the land of old and new.
Charles R. Cross: therocketmagazinelives@ gmail.com or www.charlesrcross.com