Music review: Chris Cornell sensational at Farquhar

Chris Cornell with Bhi Bhiman

When: Tuesday

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Where: Farquhar Auditorium, University of Victoria

The first of seven dates in Canada on Chris Cornell’s acoustic tour of small theatres went into the history books Tuesday as something truly special, to the delight of 1,060 boisterous fans gathered to see the Soundgarden singer in a stripped-bare setting.

Much like Cornell’s previous solo date in Victoria, a sold-out 2011 stop at the Royal Theatre, the full house simply couldn’t get enough of the powerful singer. Cornell is known for having one of the biggest, boomiest voices in rock, and you could hear every muscle of it Tuesday at the University of Victoria’s Farquhar Auditorium, one of the best listening rooms in the city.

Cornell, 49, seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. He rode onto the stage — to a standing ovation, no less — on a tricked-out bike made for him by a local teen, a Cheshire grin plastered across his face. It was the first of many indications that Cornell was in a frisky mood.

He was genuine, however, in his love of Victoria, a city he visited while growing up in Seattle.

“This is probably one of the most beautiful places in the world,” he said. “I’m proud to be from the Northwest. You guys have something beautiful here. Protect it.”

He opened his two hour-plus set with a cover of Tom Waits’s The House Where Nobody Lives, which he transformed from its haggard original into a listener-friendly ballad.

He would only get more adventurous — and hit-heavy, thanks to standouts like Fell on Black Days, which drew a standing ovation — from there.

Cornell played everything from Audioslave songs to Soundgarden smashes, and was joined by opening act Bhi Bhiman for another Temple of the Dog hit, Hunger Strike, which came across beautifully. Cornell has been paying tribute to Pearl Jam (his Temple of the Dog bandmates) plenty of late, even performing Footsteps, a Pearl Jam rarity, Monday night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

He dove deep into Temple of the Dog’s catalogue, most of which he wrote. It all sounded impeccable, as did the many cover songs he performed. With a rotary-dial telephone beside him, one that was owned by the late Jeff Buckley, Cornell was a master communicator.

Bhiman, 31, will open every date on Cornell’s six-week Songbook tour, a solo showcase that should earn him hordes of new fans. The singer, who is of Sri Lankan descent, has a Cornell-like weapon at his disposal, and though he comes across as more gentle and less intimidating than the night’s headliner, his vocal power was no less impressive.

Bhiman offered a mix of originals and a lone cover song by Talking Heads which, in his hands, became a tender ballad.

The night offered a bit of everything, but at its core this was high-level singer-songwriter fare, a night of music that would have been great in a bar but sounded sensational in a theatre.

No wonder tickets for the show sold out within 45 minutes of going on sale in mid-August.

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