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Review: Why Miley Cyrus belonged at this Chris Cornell tribute concert

Stone Gossard looked like he couldn’t quite believe what he was about to say.

Standing onstage Wednesday night at the Forum — where the Pearl Jam guitarist had gathered with dozens of other musicians for a concert tribute to the late Chris Cornell — Gossard peered into the wings and then turned to face the crowd.

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“We got someone coming out here to sing ‘Say Hello 2 Heaven,’” he said, referring to the tune by Temple of the Dog, the short-lived grunge-era supergroup that combined members of Pearl Jam and Cornell’s band Soundgarden.

“And her name is, uh, Miley Cyrus.”

The pop star once known as Hannah Montana was perhaps a surprising choice to salute Cornell, who died by suicide in 2017 after establishing himself as one of rock’s great vocalists. But if anyone had doubts that she belonged at this show, called “I Am the Highway,” Cyrus’ performance should’ve put them to rest.

Pushing her voice to its raspiest extreme, the singer belted “Say Hello 2 Heaven” with such bluesy intensity that the decades-old song (which Cornell wrote about losing a friend of his) sounded convincingly like the product of fresh pain.

“We love you, Chris,” she said afterward. “Thank you for bringing us all together like you always have.”

Indeed, Cyrus wasn’t the only artist in Wednesday’s nearly five-hour production whose presence demonstrated the breadth of Cornell’s influence.

Ziggy Marley, left, and Toni Cornell perform.
Ziggy Marley, left, and Toni Cornell perform. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Though he found fame as a successor to classic howlers like Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, Cornell dabbled widely over his career, taking up acoustic folk on his solo records and heavy funk with another supergroup, Audioslave, in which he teamed with dudes from Rage Against the Machine. In 2009 he made a gleaming synth-pop record with the hip-hop producer Timbaland; it was maligned back then, but in retrospect it seems almost to predict the blurred genre lines that define the streaming era.

At the Forum, Cornell’s admirers included old peers like Metallica and Foo Fighters (both of whom mixed renditions of Cornell’s songs with tunes of their own) as well as Adam Levine of Maroon 5, who sang “Seasons”; reggae’s Ziggy Marley, who joined Cornell’s teenage daughter Toni for a moving version of his late father Bob’s “Redemption Song”; and Ryan Adams, who turned Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days” into a moody roots-music number.

Rita Wilson, the actor and occasional soft-rock singer, even turned up to do “The Promise,” which Cornell wrote not long before his death for a movie about the Armenian genocide.

James Hetfield, left, and Lars Ulrich of Metallica.
James Hetfield, left, and Lars Ulrich of Metallica. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“I Am the Highway,” which according to organizers raised more than $1 million for two charitable organizations — the Epidermolysis Bullosa Medical Research Foundation and the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation (the latter headed by the singer’s widow) — was built around performances by the surviving members of Cornell’s three bands, with various guest vocalists filling in for the frontman.

And given that the show also featured assorted one-off performances and archival video clips, it could feel at times like a slog.

“It’s gonna be a little bumpy tonight,” Jimmy Kimmel warned early on, before he quietly disappeared from his job as the evening’s host. Other celebrity speakers and presenters included Brad Pitt, Courteney Cox and Jack Black, who cheerfully acknowledged that a stage manager was urging him to stretch his thin material while Metallica set up.

In a way, though, the concert’s length — and its looseness — provided the needed space to honor Cornell’s expansive vision.

Adam Levine, center, performs accompanied by Jesse Carmichael, left, and Stone Gossard.
Adam Levine, center, performs accompanied by Jesse Carmichael, left, and Stone Gossard. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

You got an especially strong sense of his flexibility as a singer in Temple of the Dog’s set. In addition to Cyrus, it had Fiona Apple growling through “All Night Thing” and Miguel finding the psychedelic soul in “Reach Down”; for the band’s biggest hit, “Hunger Strike” — which originally featured Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, curiously absent here — Brandi Carlile and Chris Stapleton gave the song a rough-hewn country-rock sound that seemed to extend what Cornell was doing late in life. (Encouragingly, women were well-represented in Wednesday’s concert, recalling recent reunion gigs by Nirvana in which the late Kurt Cobain’s parts were performed by the likes of Joan Jett and Lorde.)

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Carlile reappeared with Audioslave, emphasizing the sensuality of Cornell’s singing in “Like a Stone”; Dave Grohl in “Show Me How to Live” reminded you of the fury his friend could put across when he wanted to.

By the time Soundgarden took the stage around midnight — assisted by somewhat lower-wattage pals such as Taylor Momsen and Marcus Durant — “I Am the Highway” was threatening to run out of gas.

But then the band revved up the lumbering groove of its old hit “Outshined,” with its quotable lyric about “looking California and feeling Minnesota,” and once again you thought of Cornell’s valuable ability to hold more than one idea in his head at a time.

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