In 1992, Pearl Jam was my blossom when I was a shy and awkward 18-year-old writer. Before I even knew who I was, I knew this band would last the test of time. While others slandered them for “selling out”, I knew there was something permanent in the way the five-piece (now six-piece) took angst, heartbreak, feminism, politics and wove a tapestry of strength with the cynicism. I believed in fractured perfection for the first time, and Eddie Vedder’s lyrics taught me a thing or two about writing poetry as well.
Twenty-two years later, I learn that today, they still play like they are playing to a small club of hard-core punks and metal heads who came to Seattle in the early 90s to experience a new genre of music that nobody really understood and some deeply resented. When Pearl Jam first exploded, Vedder’s angry face graced the front cover of TIME magazine in 1993, and grunge was the new buzzword. Today, it’s called rock and roll again. All hype aside, this band is the real deal. From one night to the next, a Pearl Jam set list is never cloned, a band decision that is challenging to pull off. Imagine the bootleg compilation! Pearl Jam has been doing this for over two decades. They continue to defy odds, and the die-hard fans continue to come back for more.
Lightning Bolt, their 10th studio album since their debut in 1991, makes up a healthy portion of the set list with a peppering of songs from Ten, Vs., Vitalogy, No Code, Yield, Binaural, Riot Act, Pearl Jam and Backspacer, as well as selections from singles, EPs, and covers. The band opens with “Oceans”, a lilting introduction to the head rush to come. As the drums and guitar steadily climb the ropes, Vedder warms up his voice by cooing, keening and moaning through the haunting opener. “Low Light” off Yield follows, a subtle, jangly number with warm harmonies. Next, No Code’s “Present Tense” methodically opens its petals to ask a series of rhetorical questions meant to lead one towards enlightenment. Always ambitious with their covers, the band breaks out with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” that leads into the Vitalogy hit “Corduroy”, a vitriolic admonishment of the corrupt music industry. We’re in full swing now. “Can’t buy what I want because it’s free!” Vedder repeats as the crowd helps him along, his undying idealism still as fresh as when he was the new kid in the band, replacing Andy Wood after Wood’s tragic drug overdose in 1990.
“Lightning Bolt” follows, the radio-friendly title song off the latest album, a bouncy number with a traditional, pop-song structure. The touching “Amongst the Waves” reinforces Vedder’s love of all things ocean-related, a surfer for life. The autobiographical “My Father’s Son” picks at the old scab of Vedder’s troubled childhood, honoring the father he never really knew. One of my personal favorites, “Given to Fly” off Yield follows with Vedder almost whispering the first verse as the subdued guitar and drums wait their turn to open up mid-way through, soaring, plunging, speeding up, pulling back. It’s a euphoric number.
Now, almost a third of the way through the set, “Swallowed Whole” off Lightning Bolt takes its place in line at song number ten. The guitar opens in a style that is reminiscent of The Who, a dominating influence on the band. This is a hearty rock song, allowing McCready a solo or two that lights a fire under his fingers for the rest of the night. Number 11 is “Immortality”, a classic off Vitalogy that some have translated as being a tribute to the late Kurt Cobain. With its whiny, bluesy guitar interludes, the song is an apt reference to the complicated story of Cobain’s legacy. “Some die just to live” is a paradoxical statement that is just one example of Vedder’s lyrical prowess. “Infallible” off Lightning Bolt follows, trudging along in its steadfast staccato, making way for another classic, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” off Vs., which opens with just rhythm guitar and vocals. An arena of fans sings along to this one: “Hearts and thoughts they fade…fade away…” the crowd offers in harmony. When all the stadium lights are turned on to reveal thousands holding their arms up while singing, “I just wanna scream ‘Hello!’” the euphoria was electric.
The delicate “Future Days” off Lightning Bolt is next, opening with Boomer Gaspar’s keys, leading into harmonies and acoustic guitar, Jeff Ament’s stand-up bass rounding out a touching piece about the acceptance that comes with age, when one’s angst and demons take a back seat to a world view that is more inclusive. Always a blessed contradiction, the boys plunge into “Even Flow” off Ten, one of the angrier classics about homelessness. It would be a serious transgression to not include this in a Pearl Jam set. McCready decides to play the entire song with the guitar behind his back. This is the difference between other indie bands and Pearl Jam. They are unapologetic about putting on a show for the fans. Not too cool for stunts, this band is about a good time and flaunting their talents. The crowd chants along to the now-infamous chorus.
In full-swing now, “Do the Evolution” follows, a full-bodied, distortion-heavy number off Yield. Still only at song 17, “Mind Your Manners” off Lightning Bolt is a punk-themed force of nature, charging through, stopping and starting on a dime, reminding the audience that this band’s roots are as deeply entrenched in hard-core punk as they are in stadium rock. McCready is in seventh heaven. “Sirens”, also off Lightning Bolt, is a heady number that sets the stage for “No Way”, another song off Yield. These last two numbers are deceptively simple and well-behaved, because what is next is one of the band’s darkest, loudest, fastest numbers from the album Vs. “Blood” is a spinning, sinister, screeching anthem about Vedder’s distaste for the media’s glorification of lead singers: “Make Ed big. Turn Ed into one of his enemies.” Vedder’s bloodletting puts a cap on the first part of the show. The band exits as McCready strips off his sweat-soaked shirt.
Song 21 is “Better Man” off Vitalogy, a story about a woman in a loveless relationship that is one of the most heartbreaking songs you will ever hear. This band doesn’t shrink from sentimentality, and once the drums enter, the song is less about victimization and more about resilience. Song 22 is another classic with the feminist edge that Vedder has always reveled in. A jangly guitar opens up “Daughter” (originally titled “Brother”) with a scene at a breakfast table. “She holds the hand that holds her down. She will rise above.” I cannot tell you how often this song gave me courage to defend myself against the males who tried to denigrate and silence me. Thanks for that, Ed. As they are wont to do, Pearl Jam love to add interludes and extensions to their songs that are covers of classic rock songs like Pink Floyd’s “Another”, which rounds out “Daughter”.
Next is a tribute to the late Lou Reed with Vedder alone on stage. He plays “After Hours” after confessing that he really misses Reed. “Miss them while they’re still here,” Vedder advises, after joking that the sentiment might make better sense after drinking a bottle of wine. He is on his second bottle. Number 24 is the deceptively jaunty and brief “Sleeping By Myself”. As Vedder accompanies the band on ukelele, the song laments a musician’s loneliness while on the road. Yet another Pink Floyd cover, “Mother”, rounds out the sapphic theme of the encore. A politically-charged piece offering a series of rhetorical questions from son to mother, followed by the mother’s comforting answers, it is a timely message during the current horrors of drone strikes and the NSA’s unapologetic spying on its citizens. Vedder’s baritone growls, whines, warns, accuses. It is a lullaby to his two daughters, to his fans and to himself.
The crowd is ready to get loud again, and the band gives us what we want: “Breath” (from the Singles soundtrack), followed by “Go” and “Porch” off Ten. This is classic Pearl Jam, some of the oldest and most empowering songs every written for troubled youth. All three songs represent what it is like to be young and still unleashed. Remember that itch to get out, to get as far away from home as possible, to travel the world and cross the line? These are songs to drive fast to, to get arrested to, to drink and fuck and fight to. These are songs for the young and the stupid, God bless us all.
If this were 1993, the mosh pits would be in full swing. But this is 2013, and after the Roskilde tragedy in 2000 where nine fans were accidentally killed and several wounded, Pearl Jam had to take a step back and reevaluate what this music thing was really all about. The result? The band has learned when to pull back a little during live sets. This is why I am disappointed that the band did not open “Porch” with the foul-mouthed, greasy distortion I have been patiently waiting for all night. They start it out with a more subdued tone that completely deflates the epic introduction that serves as a catapult for the rest of the song. Is this a precaution, I wonder? Is the band afraid of its own force? As it is, one fan is pulled out of the pit and escorted off stage, and Vedder stops mid-song to inquire about the man’s well-being. The trauma of Roskilde is ever-present, the band still mourning the incomprehensible tragedy. This is how music can be a weapon, after all.
“Porch” is also the song that goes on for a while, spiraling into a long, winding jam that, in the past, allowed Vedder time to climb and hang from risers, jump into and surf the crowd, offering up his body to be bruised and scratched night after night. Tonight, Vedder stays grounded for the most part. Instead, he passes a wine bottle around to the fans, climbs the swinging lamps that are lowered every now and then for the musicians to kick and shove around the stage and swings out into the crowd before landing yet another jump on cue.
The stage rotates to face the back of the arena, and Vedder does the twist while singing “Last Kiss”, a Wayne Cochran cover, to the fans who have been staring at his back for most of the show. “Unthought Known” off Backspacer is next, the muted guitar strumming climbs slowly with Vedder’s confident baritone until the keys and drums pull in McCready’s lilting guitar. It’s a lovely number. A cover of The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” sustains the former song’s energy, both songs taking advantage of the large space, reaching into every corner of the venue to pull out that epic, stadium-worthy chorus. They nail it.
Finally, song 33, the last song of the night, is yet another cover: Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World”, another personal favorite, breaks open, and we are awash in that unmistakable guitar riff that ushers in one of the most subversive American rock songs every written. The stark imagery, the relentless assault of distortion and a hard-driving beat frames the harmony that is a call to action to citizens of a “free” country. McCready doesn’t smash his guitar this time, although he has already penetrated the amplifier with his guitar headstock and surfed the crowd at one point. After struggling with Crohn’s disease, it is good to see McCready looking so spry.
In fact, the whole band looks healthy and happy. Who would’ve predicted such a thing from some of the loudest, angriest, hard-working rockers in the history of American rock and roll? Here’s to 20 more years of songwriting, touring and activism. Eddie, Stone, Jeff, Mike, Matt and Boomer, may the jam always be with you.