Tuesday, October 04, 2005

‘Unbelievable’: Pearl Jam in Philly, 10.3.05

Why do I keep going to Pearl Jam concerts? Because when Eddie Vedder walks out with the opening band and rips into a dead-on cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” (including a note-for-note perfect harmonica solo), you know it’s gonna be one heck of a night.
Pearl Jam was at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia Monday night for the finale of its brief 2005 North American tour. No new album (yet), no overt political agenda (thank goodness); these guys just love playing live and wanted to get out and stretch their legs a little. Well, a lot.
On Monday night, the band continued to stake its claim as the most adventurous live act in the world. The way Pearl Jam goes about its concerts (Eddie writing up a new setlist out of his head in the moments leading up to the show), every night is special because nobody sees the same set twice. And then there are those occasions—and nobody can predict exactly when or where they’ll come—when the band somehow kicks it up yet another notch. Dates such as 7.11.95, 9.11.98, 11.6.00, and 7.11.03 (to name just a few) need no explanation in the diehard fan community; they are shows where something so extraordinary happened, the numbers alone hold significance.
Add 10.3.05 to that list.
The length and breadth of the show alone was stunning. Three hours, 34 songs, including a set Ed said was comprised of “songs we don’t play that often” (hello, dream come true). He started everything off on a high note by absolutely nailing “The Promised Land” (one of my favorite Springsteen songs) with openers Sleater-Kinney as his backing band. S-K went on to play an excellent set, including this shocking finale: they brought out EVERY MEMBER OF PEARL JAM to play a cover of Danzig’s “Mother,” with Ed videotaping the whole thing before jumping on Matt Cameron’s drum set (which I don’t even think was miced) to help finish the thing off. It’s always a good sign when you already feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth and the band hasn’t even “officially” hit the stage.
The surreal experience continued with PJ’s set, as they opened with “Wash,” an all-time favorite that I had yet to hear in person. They’ve pulled it out every once in a while during tours past, but it’s usually rough around the edges. Not this time—they’ve obviously been practicing.
From there it was one of the most breakneck opening sets I can remember (in person or otherwise). By the time they kicked into “Brain of J” in the third slot, Mike McCready was already literally running around the gear on his side of the stage—again, always a good sign. Mike continues his evolution as a showman and one of the great guitar heroes of all time; he was on fire all night long, jumping on and off amps, playing behind his head, waving his arms in the air to pump up the crowd (like we needed any encouragement). Other than a few quick comments from Ed about how much the band loves playing Philadelphia, the first hour went by in a blink with a blistering 12 rockers in a row to open the night. They took a collective breath with “Betterman” (the opening singalong now one of my favorite PJ concert moments) and “Nothingman,” then tore into “Once,” “Bleed for Me” (a new song, so I’m guessing on the title here; it actually wasn’t that great, but I’m not going to worry right now about whether the new album will be any good or not), and “Blood” to cap off the main missive.
A longer-than-normal encore break meant something great was on the way; the more time Pearl Jam takes to come up with an encore set, the better the sets usually are. This one was no exception, as the band came back out with the ultra-rare “Around the Bend,” a beautiful acoustic song that closes 1996’s “No Code.” Follow that with Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” a new addition to PJ’s cover catalog, and we’re off to a great start. And then, WHAMMO! “Hard to Imagine,” a legendary b-side that, until this tour, has made far too few sets. But wait: WHAMMO, WHAMMO! “Crown of Thorns,” the amazing Mother Love Bone song that Ed told us is reserved only “for special occasions.” This is something so unthinkable, it didn’t even rest on my “wish list” (sorry, pun not intended). OK, I can go home now.
Yet that amazing double-dip leads into “Crazy Mary,” which held its own special point in the evening. Just as Ed finished the “L-O-I-T-E-R-I-N-G” line, a loud burst of distortion blasted out of the speakers, bringing the band to an abrupt halt. Ed seemed genuinely spooked and said he didn’t want to finish the song (much to the crowd’s chagrin). But Stone Gossard apparently convinced Ed to press on, so they pick up right where they left off and finish with a stunning solo duet from Mike and keyboardist Boom Gasper, while Ed wandered around the front of the stage sharing his wine bottle with fans up front.
“Alive” closed the first encore, a song that has undergone a major reshaping over the years. One of the band’s biggest radio hits, it had become cliché by the end of the 1990s. And then nine people died while Pearl Jam was onstage at a 2000 European festival, and “Alive” went away; really, how could Ed stand in front of another crowd and scream, “I’m still Alive!”?
The band retired “Alive” until the final show of the 2000 tour, the aforementioned 11.6.00 concert in Seattle, seemingly at peace with the tragedy that struck earlier that year. Since then, the pathos behind “Alive” has changed. Originally, the song was cynical; now, the band plays it with such a sense of hope that the song has returned as a highlight of any show.
With such a dream-come-true encore and running time already at two hours, the concert really could have ended right there. But PJ wasn’t done by a long shot, finishing the show with an amazing eight-song finale. “Last Kiss” led off with the band all gathered behind Matt’s drum kit playing to the behind-the-stage crowd—a nice little “thank you” to those who were just glad to be in the building.
It seemed the band was actually ready to call it quits a few songs later (boy, I’m glossing over “In My Tree,” “Do the Evolution” and “Sonic Reducer”? Yes, this show must have been legendary) with “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but Ed asked the crowd, “Do you want one or two?” Uh, do you really have to ask? So they rip into “Leaving Here” first, then turn the house lights up for the trademark extended jam of “Free World.” Ed was running all over the stage at this point, throwing tambourine after tambourine into the crowd and dancing with S-K’s Corin Tucker. Two songs became three, though, as Ed walked to the mic once again and told us, “Mike wants to say good-bye,” and of course it’s “Yellow Ledbetter” to finish the evening.
Here’s the scary thing: nights like Monday’s show in Philly are actually becoming more, not less, common in Pearl Jam’s concert resume. Typically bands start to wear down as the years roll by and age starts to add up. Not PJ. As these Gen-Xers all hit their 40s, they seem to only get better, with more “special” nights than ever as they continue to challenge their own history and break their own rules. They’ve gone from averaging 90 minutes to 2 hours to now 2 ½ hours per show; main sets that used to be 15 or 16 songs are now 18; encores that used to be two or three songs apiece are now stretching into five and six (or eight!).
Pearl Jam have become so good at their craft, “show” may even be a misnomer at this point. Last night was more like rock and roll catharsis, a truly communal experience between artist and audience. It’s a vibe they are able to deliver because they are so willing to take chances and create a new experience each and every time they take a stage. As Pearl Jam and Sleater-Kinney linked arms to take a group bow at the end of the night, I got the sense they really and truly enjoyed themselves as much as we did, and the rock and roll cliché of “respecting the fans” really does apply in this case. It’s that authenticity that continues to compel me to see them again and again.
I’m done trying to compare one Pearl Jam show to another, because it’s pointless. This band gives its all and gets it done time and time again—they never disappoint. As I said to my brother as we dropped back into our seats, physically exhausted and emotionally drained: “Unbelievable.”

Pearl Jam
Wachovia Center, Philadelphia

The Promised Land (Ed w/Sleater-Kinney)
Mother (Pearl Jam w/Sleater-Kinney)

Main Set:
Hail Hail
Brain of J
Spin the Black Circle
Given to Fly
Even Flow
Green Disease
Not for You
Bleed for Me (new, unreleased song)

First Encore:
Around the Bend
Harvest Moon (w/Sleater-Kinney)
Hard to Imagine
Crown of Thorns
Crazy Mary

Second Encore:
Last Kiss
In My Tree
Do the Evolution
Sonic Reducer
Little Sister
Leaving Here (w/Sleater-Kinney)
Rockin’ in the Free World (w/Sleater-Kinney)
Yellow Ledbetter

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