Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Eddie Vedder on the West Coast//Pearl Jam on the East Coast

Tonight Eddie Vedder wraps up an “experiment” he’s been working on since April 1, his very first solo tour. The results, without question, have been tremendous. Reviews of this all-too-brief West Coast swing have been overwhelmingly positive, and many are downright glowing; after listening through the set from April 7 in Berkeley (thanks again Fuel/Friends!), I certainly understand why. I have particular pathos for Whitney Pastorek’s thoughts posted to Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch blog, but I’d refer you to Brian Cohen's Billboard report for a more balanced account (his assessment of Ed’s political acumen is spot on).

Vedder’s solo work on last fall’s “Into the Wild” soundtrack is what spurred this jaunt, but those songs make up only a small portion of the rather overtly structured set he’s been playing.

***Side note about “Into the Wild”: In my review of the soundtrack, I mentioned how I wished several of the songs were more fleshed out and edited to fit the film. I was hoping maybe that would happen in a live setting, but no such luck: “Setting Forth” and “No Ceiling” remain tantalizingly brief. Also, I did like the movie very much—much more than I thought I’d ever enjoy anything having to do with Sean Penn. It still embraced the hippie vibe a little too heavily, but not to the extent I figured it would, and the story, on the whole, was quite balanced and fair (much more so than, say, a “documentary” by Michael Moore). I give it an “A-,” but it’s the type of movie that, if you hate it, I certainly wouldn’t try and convince you otherwise; I would understand why.***

Anyway, just about all of Vedder’s choices—be they Pearl Jam songs or covers—are so good it’s tough picking out moments to highlight, so I’ll choose one of each. Undoubtedly the most impressive and moving moment from the PJ catalog is Ed’s own “Arc” from 2002’s “Riot Act.” To accomplish this vocal feat, he sings a melodic phrase into a recorder, which then repeats that phrase as he layers more and more on top, until the entire auditorium is ringing with a chorus of no words, just his still-vibrant baritone. It’s breathtaking on a bootleg; can’t imagine what it’s like in person—I got goosebumps just from the reviews. The cover choice is much more difficult, as there are so many incredible options, but I’ll go with Ed’s gorgeous, extended take on James Taylor’s “Millworker” for showing off not only his continued vocal prowess, but his underrated guitar skills, as well. (My wife's pick would be The Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.")

And I’ll reserve a special honor for another cover, “Hard Sun” from “Into the Wild,” which at this point is more Ed’s song than the original author’s, anyway. Pastorek described it as “colossally triumphant,” and that’s right on. My utter love for this song STILL hasn’t diminished after all these months. It probably should have been my Song of the Year.

This brings me to Pearl Jam’s upcoming tour of the East Coast in June. It’s wishful thinking, of course, but I’m hopeful some of this solo-tour goodness carries over into the full-band experience. Vedder regularly offers a song or two by himself to open a night’s show, so maybe he’ll take this opportunity to do a little mini-“Into the Wild” pre-show set at each stop. And were he able to convince the band to play “Hard Sun” in full … well, that would just be the best thing ever, wouldn't it?

All this praise for Vedder & Co. is not to say everything is perfect in Pearl Jam-land, however. After my two shows in a couple months (woohoo!—see? I'm already excited) I’ll be too gushy to level much criticism, so I’ll mention now that recent events have me nervous as to PJ's future status as the most fan-friendly major band in the world, a title they’ve held unanimously since the beginning.

I have two complaints/concerns:

1. Vedder implemented a strict no-taping policy at his solo shows; some ingenious folks managed to slip in under the radar, of course, but any of their recordings that get posted online are quickly removed by the Ten Club (PJ’s fan organization). For a band who has gone out of its way to encourage taping and trading of its shows, I’m hoping this is just somehow tied into Ed’s “experimentation” vibe and not an official change in policy. It would diminish them in my eyes—quite a bit, actually.

2. Ticket prices for the brief summer tour are WAY up this time around: $15/ticket over the album tour from just two years ago and a whopping $25/ticket over 2003’s “Riot Act” tour. They’ve done a very good job at keeping prices relatively low for the bulk of their career, so this is extremely disappointing—I mean, we’re getting close to U2/Springsteen territory here. If this continues at the current rate, my days of multiple shows in one tour could be over, which is sad. Greedy, I know, but sad. And it speaks to a larger issue of credibility: How can Vedder write an album (“Into the Wild”) about shedding society’s consumer-mentality shackles and then turn around and jack up his ticket prices? And it’s not just PJ—his solo shows priced out at more than $60 apiece, and that’s BEFORE TicketBastard gets its hands around your throat. It’s troubling.