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I Watched Chris Cornell’s Final Show — and Saw Ominous Hints of the Tragedy to Come

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Detroit photographer Ken Settle has been shooting concerts and artists in the Detroit area since the 70s. He first captured images of the grunge-era band Soundgarden in their early years in the late 80s. Every time they came to town since, he’s been on hand to take new photos and watch a show.

But Wednesday night’s performance at Detroit’s Fox Theatre — the last for frontman Chris Cornell, who died of suicide Wednesday evening — was different in several ways, Settle tells PEOPLE.

“My first impression was that Chris was more joyous than I’d ever seen him before,” Settle said. “He’d always been, back in the early days especially, kind of a brooding performer, more introspective, sometimes looking down at his guitar most of the time with his hair in his face. At this show, it was the opposite of that.”

Cornell performing with Soundgarden in Detroit at the Fox Theatre on May 17th, 2017.
J. Ryan/Splash News Online

By the second song, Cornell was up close with the audience, slapping hands and doing fist bumps. “He was really interactive with the audience,” Settle said, noting that the singer gave heartfelt compliments to the city of Detroit. “He said it very sincerely, that ‘I’ve been telling people how great Detroit rock audiences really are.’ He said it like he really meant it. But then he followed it by saying, ‘I feel really sorry for the next city.'”

RELATED: Chris Cornell’s Life in Photos

It was a quip, a random bit of stage patter, that Settles, learning of Cornell’s death, says he’s had to reconsider.

“I took that to mean at the time, he said it that the next city won’t compare to the show they would put on in Detroit. In retrospect… it almost sounded like he wasn’t going to show up in the next town. That kind of gives me pause.”

Whatever was going on in Cornell’s head, Settle, like other concert goers told PEOPLE, that Cornell was in fine form during a show that went on for more than two hours.

“His voice was great. He was hitting all of the high notes,” Settle said. “The artistry of the band. This was not a retread. There was still a creative force. They weren’t just putting it on cruise control. It was one powerful band. That spark, the energy and the artistry was still there.”

Settle also observed another behavior he hadn’t seen before in of the singer — he connected with his bandmates. “He got right up to (lead guitarist) Kim Thayil, right in his face, while he was singing. It’s been like pulling teeth getting a shot of them in the same frame, but that was different, too. And to me, these all seemed like positive things.”

RELATED VIDEO: Chris Cornell: From Drugs at 13 to One of the Most Influential Voices of the Seattle Scene

 

In hindsight, like others, Settle finds it unusual that the band closed out its show with a Led Zeppelin song woven in with one of their own. It’s title: “In My Time of Dying.”

“It’s a very odd choice to weave that in and now it does make you wonder. There is so much that does point to a person who perhaps knew what was coming up, which is so sad. It makes me look at my pictures to search his eyes to see if there is a clue, something he’s saying that people were missing.”

Settle added, “His voice was the voice of a whole movement, more so than any of the others of that era. It’s heartbreaking.”

Of the news from the medical examiner that Cornell had committed suicide by hanging himself: “To go from the stage and that crowd to the despair that one would feel to take their life in such a way… It’s a profound way to hurt yourself. It had to be a very deep pain to get someone to step out of life, with their kids in their life, a pretty profound hurt. That is one of the tragedies of suicide and mental illness and depression.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).