Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The National: ‘A Skin, A Night’

Since I caught their set at Messiah College, I’ve been listening to The National obsessively for the better part of the past two months. The band’s most recent album, 2007’s “Boxer,” has been particularly high in the rotation, so imagine my excitement upon sitting down to watch “A Skin, A Night,” a documentary filmed during the recording of that instant classic.

I couldn’t help but have high expectations: I was thinking somewhere along the lines of the Wilco film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” where filmmaker Sam Jones was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time as the band recorded its landmark “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”; or at least I would get something akin to Pearl Jam’s 1998 mini-documentary “Single Video Theory,” which chronicled the writing process for their stellar 1998 effort, “Yield.”

“A Skin, A Night” is neither of those two things. Not even close. In short: It’s a stunning disappointment. First-time director Vincent Moon delivers the most clichéd piece of moody art-school trash you can imagine. Painfully long shots of musicians noodling aimlessly on their instruments with no context are broken up only by even more painful long shots of stereotypically mopey images of subway trains or cityscapes. You’d think it would be impossible for a film only an hour long to have any fluff, but “A Skin, A Night” is filled almost entirely with expendable scenes. The only rationale I can think of for this type of work is an attempt by Moon to capture in film what The National do with music: belying specifics in favor of weaving together pieces of images and letting the audience decide its meaning for themselves. It works for the band, but definitely not for the movie.

I learned almost nothing about The National or their process from this film. There are a few scattered scenes of frontman Matt Berninger working on and discussing the lyrics for “Green Gloves,” but even that storyline is never brought to a close. At one point, one of the band members mentions offscreen how sometimes they’ll work and work on a song and something will then just “click,” and will come together in a flash; you’d think a moment like that would find its way into the film, but, sadly, no. There’s not even any investigation into the motivations and inspirations behind “Boxer.” One member of the band mentions late in the going how this could be a landmark period in the group’s career; that statement obviously proved true after the album came out, but the film ignores it.

“A Skin, A Night” is a massive failure due to such a glaring missed opportunity. I gained much more insight on the band from this 20-minute NPR interview (which I highly recommend) than from this entire film. The only thing that remotely saved the movie was, of course, the music, but there’s not even that much live material included here, either. “A Skin, A Night” disappoints in basically every possible way.

Grade: D

On a side note, the saving grace of this DVD is that it comes packaged with a new batch of material from The National. Dubbed “The Virginia EP,” it’s actually no EP at all, clocking in at 45 minutes. It has several new songs, several more excellent demos (including an early version of one of my faves, “Slow Show”), and a few great live cuts. The best of the latter is the band’s amazing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion On the Hill” (I like their version better than Bruce’s!). The DVD/CD combo is only $15 on Amazon, so the CD alone is worth the price. And, who knows, maybe you go in for the art-school schlock this film offers.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Take a Bow, Gentlemen—We Earned It: Pearl Jam, Live in D.C., 6.22.08

There are certain cities Pearl Jam fans will travel to from far and wide to see their favorite band play. These locales—I’m thinking specifically of New York, Boston, Philly, and Chicago—have hosted some of the band’s best-ever shows, and they almost always bring their A-game to these towns.

But over the course of a Pearl Jam tour, there are always—always!—a few epic shows that pop up in unexpected places, where the crowd and the mood and the timing are just right and mixed in just the perfect way to create something special. Sunday night in D.C. was one of those nights.

For some reason, leading up to the show I had a good feeling about it I couldn’t quite explain. After a few songs, I figured it out: This was Pearl Jam’s first indoor show in a week. Don’t get me wrong—half the PJ shows I’ve seen have been outdoors, and those shows typically have a fun, easygoing vibe to them, which provides a unique atmosphere (where else can Eddie see the moon from the stage?). But these guys just seem to feel at home in an arena; something about the hot, enclosed surroundings leads to greater intensity. And if they happen to get matched with a great crowd, well, there’s no telling where they might go.

Such was the case Sunday night in D.C.

Things got off to a great start with “Hard to Imagine,” which offers the same type of twinkling opening strains of my all-time fave opener, “Release.” And then “HTI” hits its bigger, fuller second half and proves a perfect segue into the night. Pairing it with “Severed Hand” is a brilliant combo, as the latter’s extended intro picks up on the “HTI” vibe and then explodes into pure energy to kick everything off. This is a downright perfect way to start a show.

An all-time favorite, “Hail Hail” is always a welcome addition to any set, keeping the momentum at peak level. And I absolutely love “Do the Evolution” up early in a set, before the band gets too ragged to pull it off correctly. Hearing guitarist Stone Gossard’s unmistakable crunchy opening riff to “DTE” at Slot No. 4 was my first signal that tonight could be something special. It was take-no-prisoners time.

And then … whoosh … just like that, “Small Town” pops that intensity like a balloon. I simply do not understand why this song keeps appearing so early in the shows this tour; I get the fact that it’s a crowd favorite and a great singalong moment, and frontman Eddie Vedder probably wants to ensure everyone’s involved early. But there are so many other songs he could go to if he wants to accomplish that task that won’t kill the momentum. “Small Town” is just too, well, small to hold such a prominent position. I much prefer sets that feature somewhere in the neighborhood of seven or eight consecutive uptempo numbers before we’re allowed to take a breather.

All turned out well Sunday night, though—ironically, through the biggest Pearl Jam flub I’ve ever witnessed. Following “Small Town” was “Evacuation,” which came out of a five-year hibernation at my previous show Tuesday night in Virginia Beach. Here it was again, but we only heard the first verse because soon thereafter someone’s guitar went completely dead (some say Stone, some say lead guitarist Mike McCready), and everything started to unravel. Ed looked back over his shoulder to try and determine what was going awry, attempted to soldier on for a few more bars, then gave up the fight and brought the song careening to a halt with a screeched “Eeeevvvaaccccuuuuuaaaaaattiioonnnnnn!!!!!” The moment was reminiscent of the explosion of feedback in Philly back in ’05 that brought “Crazy Mary” to an abrupt stop, but that time they pulled themselves together and went on. Here they just gave up and moved on, with not even a word about it.

So what do you do when a song you hardly ever play completely falls apart on you? You answer with a song that’s always there for you, every single night, and always sounds great, no matter how many times you play it: “Corduroy” got things back on track right quick. Some bands may have been flapped by such a huge meltdown. Not PJ. The crowd loved it, the band handled it like it was no big deal. In fact, it seemed to galvanize them once more and ratchet up the intensity another notch.

What followed “Corduroy” was the song that made the most impact on me in two shows this week, the song that I’ve been humming more than any other, the song that, having never heard it in person before, went from “pretty good” to “great”: “I Am Mine.” Eddie started it off with a snippet of “I’m Open” from 1996’s “No Code”—it was him on the guitar and repeating the chorus a few times. The snippet also served as first installment of what I’m informally referring to as the “I” trilogy.

It was Ed’s explanation of “I Am Mine” Tuesday night that really got me thinking about this song; somehow I had never heard he wrote it the night before the Va. Beach show back in 2000 as a way to process the emotions of playing the band’s first show after nine fans were killed in June of that year at a European festival. Go back and read the lyrics now in that context and lines like “We’re safe tonight,” “All the innocents lost at one time,” and “There’s no need to hide” hold a new significance. I just finished Ayn Rand’s amazing “The Fountainhead” (more on that at a later time, I promise), and this song is surprisingly very much in line with her Objectivist philosophy, though I’m sure Ed would never want to hear that. But here he’s reclaiming his life as his own, no matter what pain circumstances have given him or what expectations others have held him to. It’s a song of sorrowful, quiet, but pure defiance in the best possible way. If there’s one thing I can say of Ed, no matter what, he’s always tried to be his own man, come hell or high water.

Completing the “I” trilogy was “I Got Shit,” which has become rarer over the years, making it all the more welcome whenever this gem is played; it brings the house down, especially with that pounding drum part from Matt Cameron. It’s one of those “tweener” songs that PJ do so well—not quite a hard rocker but not soft, either, “I Got Shit” strikes the perfect balance. And as if it wasn’t apparent already, yet another sign of how into this performance the band was came during the next song, “Daughter,” which saw Mike pogoing on his side of the stage. I don’t know exactly when Eddie felt that tonight’s crowd was really into it, but that time may have occurred here, as we perfectly mimicked his take on the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” during the tag, no matter how difficult he tried to make it.

Following “Daughter” was a rather unusual run of songs that didn’t quite flow well one into another, but somehow the band made it work. “Light Years” was, as is usually the case, a beautiful entry into the set, and perfectly placed alongside “Daughter” in a nice breather section of the main set (“Small Town”—where are you now?). Up next was “Even Flow,” the old battle ax that Pearl Jam never seems to tire of. As a longtime fan and concertgoer, I can’t help but feel a little blasé about this song, which Pearl Jam has played more times than any other song in its catalog (616 times, to be exact, which means nearly every single stinkin’ time). But just when I start to drift into that snob-fan territory I try so hard to avoid, my wife reminds me why this song is here every night: While I was watching the band, she was watching the crowd; she got a chuckle out of how all the fan club members on the floor gave absolutely zero reaction to the song, but all the non-Ten Clubbers in the rest of the building went absolutely berserk when the opening riff went off. Yes, there are several more thousand people in the room than just us. I guess my one wish is, if they’re going to keep trotting it out every night, does it really have to get longer each tour?

The solo section of the song has gotten so fat now, Ed has taken to drifting offstage (even he can’t take it! (no, actually, I think he wants to give the rest of the band—especially Mike and Matt—the full spotlight)). Maybe during that time he was gathering his thoughts for what came next: The first big political rant of the night (and, sadly, not the last). This being D.C., I was prepared for this, so I just smirked and waited for it to be over. This one happened to be about drilling for oil, but if you want more you’ll have to buy the bootleg; and I won’t get into my political relationship with Pearl Jam here, as I've covered that territory before. Ed did have a good line leading into “Green Disease,” though—something like “maybe we can get a little color in the White House this time.”

As the main set began to draw to a close, Ed introduced a new trilogy: “This one’s all about YOU,” leading to the tour debut of “You Are.” An impressive version, to be sure, as this song’s unique arrangement must be one of the band’s most difficult to pull off in a live setting; I’ve often hoped since hearing this on “Riot Act” that they’d try to do an entire album of this more technical material (a la U2’s “Achtung Baby”), but at the same time I just don’t see how more songs like this would mesh with the rest of their live show. This one certainly doesn’t sound like anything else they do.

Much like the “Man” trilogy (“Nothingman”/“Leatherman”/“Betterman”), Ed might want to rethink these types of moniker-themed groups, because they don’t really flow all that well together. I was glad to hear “U” simply because I'd never seen it live before, but it’s a rather forgettable song. Now “Who You Are,” on the other hand, is a whole different story. This excellent change-of-pace from “No Code” hadn’t been played live since former drummer Jack Irons left the band in 1998 (the beat is a decidedly Irons-influenced shuffle), but Pearl Jam finally broke it out again for this tour. I was certainly glad to hear it, if only with a slight critique that “Who You Are” by its nature doesn’t have quite the energy required to really ramp up to the close of a main set (little did I know what they had planned, though). The band followed with another drum-heavy cut to close the set, “Why Go,” which since reintroducing at our show five years ago they are playing in fine form these days. Why go home, indeed?!?!

I’ll have to check the bootleg in a few weeks to be certain, but I’m pretty sure Ed addressed the crowd directly when he came out for the first encore. One of the things I love is that he’s always genuine—he doesn’t pander for cheap crowd pops night in and night out. If he says a crowd has made an impression on him, I believe it. Sunday night he was perplexed at how raucous and responsive we were, saying he didn’t know what exactly they’d done to deserve such a reaction, but that he was glad for it. And then, something to the effect of “We aren’t goin’ anywhere.” Ahh, and now we’re really off and running!

Though the lyrics of “Comatose” may give me pause, from a musical standpoint this song is raw, primal power. That opening blast of chords is like a punch in the chest, and it’s a great way to kick off an encore. Up next was an unexpected treat: “Sad,” one of my 10 favorite PJ songs, b-side or otherwise. I don’t know how this masterpiece was left on the “Binaural” cutting-room floor, but better late than never. It should be heavy in the live rotation, that's for sure.

Unlike “Even Flow,” “Given to Fly” has remained taut throughout its 10-year lifespan, and the song remains just as momentous today as it was a decade ago. This is without question one of the band’s best songs and, like “Corduroy,” it seems to fit just right no matter where it pops up in a set. The band then brought things down a touch with “Come Back,” one of my favorite cuts off 2006’s self-titled tour de force. With the right crowd (read: attentive and well-versed), this one’s a big highlight. Ed nailed it, and kept things humming right through what shaped up to be a fabulous encore with an excellent version of “Grievance” (“Binaural” is probably Pearl Jam’s most underrated effort).

And then we hit “Black.” This is one of the band’s “classic” songs, but I’ve never been all that big a fan. While I freely admit its quality, perhaps I’ve just heard it too, too many times since 1991 for me to dredge up much passion for it. Not only was it repeated constantly on the radio, but it’s the third-most played song in the band’s history (419 times, but who’s counting?). I’ve always felt “Black” was overused in concert; because Ed has to go to such a deep, emotional place to really sing this the way it’s meant to be sung, putting it on constant repeat over all these years has diminished it somewhat.

Recently, though, “Black” has become slightly more rare. Not actually rare, mind you, but at least it’s not an every-night guarantee like it used to be just a few years ago. As such, it seems the song has regained a bit of the prestige it always deserved—if Sunday night was any indication, anyway. The first half was pretty standard stuff, but everything began to change when it hit the big mid-song solo by Mike and the crowd basically ripped the “do-do-do-do” vocal refrain from Ed and claimed it as our own. We kept the chant up all the way through, even as Ed drifted away from the mic and over to the side of the stage. A couple minutes later, as the song was winding down, Eddie started moving back toward centerstage. I thought he was just going to let it end, but the crowd persisted; shrouded in semi-darkness, Ed clung to the microphone for several heartbeats, unmoving, silent. Then he picked up on our chant and continued on into the longed-for “We Belong Together” tag; I don’t know when this coda first appeared, but the first time I heard it was on PJ’s legendary 1992 “MTV Unplugged” performance. Point is, “We Belong Together” is the perfect capper for “Black,” and this was probably the best version of this song I’ve heard in person.

And that led into what many who were in attendance are calling the best version of “Rearviewmirror” they’ve ever heard. I can’t go there, as I’m not a devotee of this particular track, but this iteration was tremendous and featured one of the best mid-song jams I’ve heard; as the music began to crescendo out of the break, Eddie moved back to the microphone and vamped a few lines about forgiveness—but instead of leading to the dramatic finish, he went back to the group gathered around the drumkit for another round of jamming, allowing the music to ebb and swell once again to the finale. It was the perfect choice to end this passionate and forceful encore.

By this point the band was at about the two-hour mark and rapidly approaching what I assumed was an 11 p.m. venue curfew. But this was one of those nights where Pearl Jam just doesn’t give a crap about the rules and they’re just gonna keep playing. When they’re feeling like this, there’s no telling what can happen, and it can lead to a bit of a freewheeling, nearly whiplashed feel as they just go wherever the mood strikes them. I was reminded of that great scene in last year’s concert film “Immagine in Cornice” where it shows the guys huddled backstage, breathless and keyed up plotting their future concert course.

Ed opened the second encore with his second major political speech of the night before playing, as I expected coming into the night, his pedestrian anti-war jangle “No More.” His heart is definitely in the right place with sympathy for a disabled soldier whom he has gotten to know, and the guitar part isn’t bad, but the lyrics are mediocre at best (which is usually the case when he puts message above the music—“Worldwide Suicide” notwithstanding). He comes off as some hippie reject from the ’60s with this one, and it just sounds rather silly at times, belying the serious and sad inspiration for the piece.

But such is my relationship with Pearl Jam that they can go from irritating to endearing in the few seconds between two songs. They followed “No More” with “Last Kiss” performed behind the stage facing those fans who paid the same money as everyone else for the worst seats in the house. PJ did this when I saw them in Philly, too, and it’s such a nice touch.

OK, so now we’re blowing past 11 p.m. and I’m thinking this has got to be the end—here comes “Rockin’ in the Free World” or “Ledbetter.” But, no, the house lights surprisingly stay down, and they kick into not just any song, but “Crazy Mary”—one of the longest pieces in their repertoire with its extended solos for both Mike and keyboardist Boom Gasper (BOOOOOOOMMM!!!!!). Curfew? What curfew!!! By that point I was into full-on no-idea-what-to-expect-anymore euphoria. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this cover, either; it fits Ed’s voice so well, and the Mike/Boom combined solo is stellar.

Right on its heels comes another monster, “Alive.” I refuse to be cynical about this song. Though it may not be my absolute favorite, this is Pearl Jam’s touchstone, their “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Eddie’s description of how its meaning has changed over the years from a song of desperation to a song of hope—thanks to the fans—makes the individual verses almost inconsequential at this point—it’s all about the chorus and the connection between band and audience. Rather than climbing the walls and rafters like in search of something real like the old days, now Eddie just stands still at the front of the stage, microphone extended, and drinks in all the goodwill exploding his way. I like its positioning this tour as the penultimate song of the night—“Alive” deserves such a prominent and special position.

So after “Alive,” the house lights come up and now it really is time to go. Now I’m really thinking “RITFW," but I see Ed has a guitar strapped on, and he doesn’t play guitar on that song. What’s going on? And then they rip into … “ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER”!!! I don’t know why I forgot about this cut (which Ed covered for the Bob Dylan-inspired “I’m Not There” soundtrack), but it was such a welcome surprise—made extra special when Ed brought a young kid up on stage to play his guitar (Ed, Stone, and bassist Jeff Ament all gathered around the lucky fan to help him along). I hope this one stays in the regular end-of-show rotation.

Only, it wasn’t quite the end of the show. Tonight was one of those shows where the band clearly didn’t want to leave the stage and capped things off with “Yellow Ledbetter,” as if to tell themselves as much as us that it really was time to go. Playing their second song to a fully lit building, Mike topped it off with a full version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” care of Jimi Hendrix.

When all was sung, strum, and done, Sunday night in D.C. came in at 31 songs and 2 hours, 45 minutes. Of the dozen PJ shows I’ve attended, on first blush I would put this in my top three. It was a special night that added up to even more than the sum of its impressive setlist. And the band knew it, too. As the crowd continued its deafening roar of approval and thanksgiving, the six members of Pearl Jam gathered at the front of stage, arms around one another’s shoulders, and took a bow, seeming to thank us just as much for the experience.

Hard to imagine how they continue to exceed even the loftiest expectations time and time again. But when these men take the stage together, they just soar.

Pearl Jam
Verizon Center
Washington, D.C.
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Main Set:
Hard to Imagine
Severed Hand
Hail Hail
Do the Evolution
Small Town
Evacuation [stopped]
I’m Open [snippet]
I Am Mine
I Got Shit
Daughter/Blitzkrieg Bop
Light Years
Even Flow
Green Disease
You Are
Who You Are
Why Go

First Encore:
Given to Fly
Come Back
Black/We Belong Together

Second Encore:
No More (Ed solo)
Las Kiss
Crazy Mary
All Along the Watchtower
Yellow Ledbetter/Star-Spangled Banner

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man: Pearl Jam, Live in Virginia Beach, 6.17.08

This summer marks my 10-year anniversary of Pearl Jam concerts, a long, exciting, wonderful journey that has crossed eight states (and one nation’s capitol) over the course of 10 shows. Tuesday night in Virginia Beach was my 11th PJ concert, and even after all these years, something happened which I never could have imagined: Eddie Vedder threw me a tambourine.

But that’s at the end of the story. It started, as usual, with the Ten Club. Pearl Jam’s fan club is treating its member tickets a little different this year by randomly selecting people to fill Rows 1-2 and 9-10; previously the seating arrangement was based entirely on seniority, so the same people who have been in the club for nearly two decades always got the best seats in the place. Joining in ’98, my spot typically falls somewhere around the 20th row—not complaining, I assure you, but when I received my ticket Tuesday night and it put me in the dead-center of the second row … well, I was a bit shocked.

Our seats (I took my brother for his birthday) were literally right under frontman Eddie Vedder’s microphone, about 10 feet from the stage—closer than I’ve ever been, or could ever have hoped. I nabbed the photo at the top of this post from someone over at the Red Mosquito message board; if you look close, right in front of Ed, that's my bald head and arm raised high (my brother's head is just to the left, also above the crowd). My first glimpse of anything PJ-related was Vedder’s appearance during the last song of opener Kings of Leon’s set; he came out to trade verses and bash a couple tambourines. Very fun.

But the real deal started about five minutes before 9, when the band came on and drifted into “Long Road,” the same song they opened with during their last stop in Va. Beach back in 2000 (and, nicely enough, the very first song I ever heard them play in person, way back in Camden, N.J., in 1998). That show was a special and scary one for the band, as it marked their first performance following the June 2000 deaths of nine fans while PJ performed at a festival in Europe. That tragedy almost marked the end of Pearl Jam, and as Eddie would relate later, he wrote “I Am Mine” the night before that last Va. Beach show in a hotel room down the street from the venue.

After the opening strains of “Long Road,” my memory of Tuesday night’s concert comes in fits and spurts. At that close range, the music washed over and past me, as I was in complete sensory overload. I was too awestruck to even get goosebumps when some of my favorite songs were played. All 25 sort of blur into one another in my mind, swirling into a two-hour mist of holy-crap-I-cannot-believe-where-I-am goodness. Each song would register when I heard the opening notes, but then I would be back into the flow of the overall show and just lose myself in the feeling rolling off that stage. The most picture-perfect memories of the night are small things, like:

• During “Sleight of Hand,” a strong breeze picked up from the right side of the amphitheater just as Ed roared into the first chorus. He turned into the wind, raised his arms to the side, and it was almost as if he was flying, hair and shirt flapping straight out behind him.

• Several times throughout the night I made one-on-one eye contact with lead guitarist Mike McCready—I would raise my hand to him and he’d point at me and nod his head in between guitar licks. McCready and Vedder are the two dynamos in the live setting—they are constant motion (especially Mike) and I was constantly swinging my head back and forth between them like I was watching a tennis match. During “Severed Hand,” Mike played his entire solo with the guitar behind his head. He rarely stops moving the entire night.

• I couldn’t see drummer Matt Cameron well (he was blocked almost entirely by Vedder), but I swear there were a few times when I could hear his drum kit naturally, not through the speakers.

• Ed spits a lot in between lines—big, honkin’ loogies of spit. Oh, and he should stop smoking and drinking so much wine, and then maybe his voice wouldn’t start to get weary by the end of a two-hour show.

• Bassist Jeff Ament really digs down low at times, almost to the point where you think he’ll end up in the splits.

• Eddie holding the mic basically right in front of our faces from the very front edge of the stage to let us sing along to both “Jeremy” and “Alive.”

• It’s so much easier—and more fun—to act like a total crazy person when you’re that close. The band—especially Mike and Ed—do a lot to get the crowd up front involved, and definitely feed off it. My brother and I were jumping, bobbing, raising hands, pumping fists … basically all the clichés Blue Man Group make such good fun of during their concerts. And you know what? It’s totally fun. That’s why I don’t remember much about the individual songs (more on that in a bit)—I was too busy having the time of my life. Mike launched literally dozens of guitar pics into the first few rows, and he also handed out his setlist after the 1 hour, 30-minute main set. Jeff launched a wristband and a pic or two, and Matt threw a bushel of drumsticks out after the show.

And then there’s Eddie and his tambourines.

The big moment of the night came during the show’s closing song, the always welcome—and almost always epic—“Rockin’ in the Free World,” originally Neil Young’s but now fully owned by Pearl Jam. As is his wont during this free-for-all, Eddie beats the living crap out of as many tambourines as his roadies can toss his way, and then throws some out to the crowd. At one point, someone threw Ed a tambourine from the wing and Ed charged across the stage like a dog chasing a Frisbee, snagging it just before it hit the ground and letting his momentum take him all the way across the stage where he leaped over an amp. I’ve never even come close to catching one, but before the show started I mentioned to my brother, “Hey, maybe I’ll catch a tambourine,” mostly in jest, never thinking such a thing possible.

As "RITFW" drove on into the first big guitar solo break, Eddie did what Eddie always does during that part: he prowls the entire stage like a wild man, and occasionally pitches around some tambourines. I was pretty sure I had made some good eye contact with Vedder throughout the night—he really couldn’t miss me, as I was right in front of his face with a big “Ramones” logo on my shirt. As he was getting ready to toss the first tambourine of the night he walked back toward the front center of the stage, looked right at me, pointed right to me with the instrument in hand so everyone around knew exactly who it was meant for, and threw it my way.

It came right to me, right in front of my face—a perfect throw—and I snatched it out of the air with one hand like a Frisbee. The whole thing happened in about 5 seconds, and I caught the tambourine before I even realized what was happening, reacting completely on instinct, and I honestly thank God for allowing me to catch it cleanly and not botch it up (if you know what my vision is like, and how hard it is for me to snag any object—football, basketball, baseball, Frisbee, whatever—then you understand my mix of elation and relief). It wasn’t until a heartbeat later, when I looked down and saw what was in my grasp, that I realized what had just happened; I held it aloft and screamed for all I was worth, my brother just about tackled me with joy, and then we went jumping mad for the rest of the song.

It’s hard to type what I’m about to type without sounding like a complete gushing fanboy, because I realize Eddie Vedder is just a guy, and I certainly don’t worship him like some sort of rock god. He drives me crazy half the time, as it is. But that being said, it gives me a flip of the stomach to know that, for one night, he could tell how much I love his music just by how into the show I was. This wasn’t a random gesture or some fluke. It was a very specific act. His throwing out tambourines is one way he thanks people that come to his shows, and the first person he thought to thank Tuesday night was me. In my head, I like to imagine he saw me at various times throughout the show and thought, "Man, that guy gets a tambourine tonight!" Though he certainly had no idea how much it would mean to me, it feels like a reward for 15 years of dedicated fandom. Two days later, it still makes me proud.

If you want to see it for yourself, here are two different angles I found on the Internet:

If you cue up this first YouTube version to about the 3:15 mark, watch the far right side of the screen. It's tough to see me, but you can definitely see Ed's point and throw. If you freeze it exactly at 3:29, you can see my blurry self holding the tambourine in my hand. I gotta tell you, this is so cool.

This next one is from; cue it up to about the 50-second mark.

And here's another YouTube angle I found Friday, at about the 3-minute mark:

As for the show itself, I’ll need to hear the official bootleg in a few weeks to make a final judgment on how good it was—you know, when I can actually comprehend all that I’m hearing. It wasn’t as big a night for b-sides as I’d hoped, nor was it as long a set as they’ve played in the past, but I can attest through visual evidence that the band members had a great time up there, and that passed on into the audience. A few highlights of this nature that I do remember:

• “Insignificance” was probably my favorite performance of the night. One of the best songs off 2000’s “Binaural,” this version was intense and tight (despite an intro foul-up by Ed).

• Eddie’s aforementioned intro to “I Am Mine” was touching and remarkable. This one looked to be an early audible, which I think was inspired by Ed’s view of a gorgeous full moon hovering just above the lawn.

• Vedder had another quality song intro later, this one for “Betterman.” He mentioned there were some Iraq veterans in the audience that night, and that no matter what the band’s political beliefs—and whether they differ from the soldiers’—he hopes the veterans know the band does everything according to what it thinks is right, and hopes the soldiers understand Pearl Jam respects and loves them. It was an uncharacteristically composed, poignant political moment from Ed. Despite my difference of beliefs with him, if he was able to relate his thoughts this way from the stage (instead of his typical rambling, incoherent, drunken, immature, talking-points babble), then I wouldn’t mind if he takes a minute out of a show to share them. Here’s hoping there’s more like this to come.

• I didn’t realize it until someone on a message board pointed it out, but there were FIVE songs from “Yield”—one of my all-time favorite albums—on the setlist. “Faithfull” and “Lowlight” are particularly rare, while warhorses “Given to Fly” and “Do the Evolution” were particularly taut and excellent.

• “All Night” from 2003’s b-sides collection “Lost Dogs” has never done much for me on CD, but really takes off in the live setting—it seems to expand, adding extra brawn and fervor. A definite highlight of the night.

• Ed’s solo effort, “Guaranteed,” was a fantastic surprise. It’s the first time this tour he’s played anything off the “Into the Wild” soundtrack, so hopefully this trend continues, as well.

• And, finally, “Evacuation” had its first airing in nearly five years. I can understand why they don’t play this song anymore, because it basically shreds Ed’s vocal cords; it seemed like he did a pretty good job of protecting them Tuesday night, and this version sounded to me like there wasn’t any rust on it at all. Tremendous surprise—and, as a bonus, it means I’ve now heard every track off “Binaural” in concert, the only PJ album for which I can make that claim.

All right, that about does it for this show, which will certainly go down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life (wow, twice in one week!). I didn’t have a camera with me, but the nice person sitting/standing next to me brought her so-cool dad to the show, and he had a camera; they’re hopefully going to send me some photos, which I’ll post later (on a side note: a few minutes after Eddie threw a tambourine to me, he threw another one to her, so her dad took a pic of us holding them up as proof).

I’m going to Verizon Center in D.C. this Sunday for PJ’s show there. Like always, I have no idea what will happen, but I’m confident it will be something memorable. With this band, you come to expect the extraordinary.

Pearl Jam
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater at Virginia Beach
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours, 10 minutes

Slow Night, So Long (Ed w/Kings of Leon)

Main Set:
Long Road
Severed Hand
All Night
I Am Mine
Small Town
Given to Fly
Green Disease
Not For You/Modern Girl (Sleater-Kinney)
Sleight of Hand
Even Flow
Do the Evolution

First Encore:
Why Go

Second Encore:
Guaranteed (Ed solo)
Rockin’ in the Free World

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Their Long Journey: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Live at Merriweather, 6.13.08

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss opened and closed their set Friday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion with the same two songs that begin and end their 2007 album, “Raising Sand.” Inhabiting the two hours in between “Rich Woman” and “Your Long Journey” was one of the best concert experiences of my life.

When I bought the tickets several months ago, I was disappointed the only stop near my home on this summer’s tour was an outdoor shed, when in so many other cities Plant and Krauss are playing smaller theaters. It didn’t take long, though, to realize I had nothing to worry about. Sure, small spaces are always nice, but it’s not like these two artists (especially Plant) aren’t used to winning over big crowds. If anything, witnessing these hushed songs stretch, fill, and enrapture such a large space was even more impressive and inspiring.

What made it even better was how they did it on their own terms. “Raising Sand” is a purposefully quiet album, built on the tension of restraint. This vibe continues into the live setting—rather than trying to rock and wail over top of the drunken rabble, their controlled performance demands attention from everyone. This was especially true of Krauss, standing up there in a flowing floor-length dress that radiated in the spotlight and wisped around her in the breeze. When she sings solo (think “Trampled Rose”) no red-blooded man can help but have the air driven from his lungs. It’s like she calls the audience to her and makes the venue smaller just by the clarity and beauty of her voice.

Plant’s name may come first in the marquee, but Krauss held the stage solo much more often. It’s her territory, after all—which he freely admits. Just before a tremendous version of “Nothin’,” he took a moment to share how nervous he was back when the “Sand” sessions were getting underway, as this Deep South bluegrass and folk—so unabashedly Americana—was a big stretch for him.

What I loved most about Plant’s performance was how generous he was onstage in relation to Krauss. “Nothin’” proved he can still bring it with nearly all the lion-maned bravado of three decades’ past, but he so clearly yields ground to Krauss when they sing together—and she back to him—so as neither one overwhelms the other, which could be so easy (especially for him). One of my favorite illustrations of this dynamic came early on during the Krauss-fronted “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”; while she remained in the spotlight at the front of the stage, Plant wandered to a microphone toward the back—over her shoulder and in the relative dark—and his accompaniment drifted in and out from there. This gracious give and take makes the moments when they both really let loose together—such as a thrilling version of Plant’s solo effort “In the Mood”—that much more remarkable.

My favorite part of the show came as the main set drew to a close, when the duo offered up a signature trio of songs. It started with “Nothin’,” Plant’s showcase on “Sand” and the closest he ever comes on that album to Led Zeppelin; when played live, the band (led masterfully by T. Bone Burnett) emphasizes even more the drastic differences between the song’s quick-change soft and loud moments.

That led into unquestionably my touchstone moment of the night: Plant and Krauss together on “The Battle of Evermore.” You really should go listen to this track from “Led Zeppelin IV” right now, and imagine Krauss’ angelic voice filling in on the background vocals. I’ve been listening to this song—in all its different iterations—for 15 years, and yet for some reason it never occurred to me how perfect it would be for this tour. When I heard the opening strains last night, the shocking of the connection between Krauss, Plant, and the song nearly brought tears to my eyes. I’ve rarely had a moment like it in more than 10 years of concertgoing. When they followed with “Please Read the Letter,” my favorite track off the album … well, it was just perfect.

There were so many other great moments, though. Their holding-back-so-much-it-hurts take on Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” is such a winner; on the complete opposite end of that spectrum is the rollicking, joyous version they’re doing of Zep’s “Black Country Woman,” a deep, deep cut off my favorite Zeppelin album, “Physical Graffiti.” I mentioned Plant’s “In the Mood” earlier, but what takes that tune over the top is the splicing in midsong of Krauss’ fervent take on the folk song “Mattie Groves.” And it goes without saying, I suppose, that her “Down to the River to Pray” is a showstopper.

Besides the roles they choose to play inside these songs, it’s just as fascinating to see how Plant and Krauss’ onstage dynamic works itself out, and how they challenge and complement each other. Plant is obviously over the moon in love—not with Krauss, but with the artistic endeavor they’ve undertaken. He’s been chatting in the press about how fulfilling this experiment has been, and the pleasure is written all over his face. There’s no fake, pandering banter between the two of them, which would so cheapen the entire thing. They never even address each other directly, and only rarely do they glance in the other’s direction except to mark cues. It’s clear both of them have found something here, made all the more special by how unlooked-for it was; they will have nothing to do with anything that would tarnish it in any way. The work stands on its own and does all the communicating between them that's needed.

I often wonder if Plant regrets any of the orgiastic excesses he engaged in during Zeppelin’s heyday, and what he thinks about those times when he’s being truly honest with himself. Maybe this album, this tour, this collaboration, is his way of seeking atonement through something so obviously pure and grounded in such sincerity. Of course, he may not regret a thing and “Raising Sand” is simply the most interesting thing he’s done in awhile.

Whatever it is that lies behind those eyes, Plant looks like a child filled with wonderment on Christmas morning, only he’s old enough and been around enough to know what a gift this experience truly is. He seems to be treasuring every second of it.

As have I.

Hooray! Found the setlist here!

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Running Time: 2 hours

Main Set:
Rich Woman
Leave My Woman Alone
Black Dog
Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us
Through the Morning, Through the Night
So Long, Goodbye to You
Fortune Teller
In the Mood/Matty Groves
Black Country Woman
Bon Temps Rouler
Shut It Tight
Trampled Rose
Green Pastures
Down to the River to Pray
Killing the Blues
The Battle of Evermore
Please Red the Letter
Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)

You Don't Knock
One Woman Man
Your Long Journey

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday, June 01, 2008

30 Years of 'Darkness'

Bruce Springsteen's fourth studio album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town," turns 30 tomorrow. Though this anniversary isn't met with nearly (or any, really) of the hoopla surrounding its predecessor, "Born to Run," when that classic album reached the same milestone three years ago, "Darkness" remains my favorite Springsteen album.

I'm no Bruce historian, so I won't attempt to delve deeply into what makes this album so incredible—if you're looking for that, just Google-News its name today and I'm sure you'll come up with plenty of reading material from those better qualified to put this record in proper perspective (I wasn't even born yet when it came out, after all). I'll leave my piece at this: When the arguably "weakest" track is the beautifully elegiac "Factory," well, other artists should be so lucky. "Darkness" certainly isn't as accessible as "Born to Run," nor as uplifting, but that's exactly why I've come to love it the best out of all Springsteen's canon. It's darker, less romantic, more real, yet still hopeful in several key spots, most notably two of my all-time favorite tracks: "Badlands" and "The Promised Land." 

In fact, if I were to try and come up with my Springsteen Top 10 list, there might be four songs off "Darkness" that would crack that group ("Candy's Room" and the title track would be the other two, in addition to the dynamic duo mentioned earlier). Every song on this record is very good, and more than half are downright great. 

So if the only Springsteen you've ever heard is "Born to Run" or "Glory Days," do yourself a favor and pick up "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Give it a few spins, and hopefully you'll hear what I'm talkin' about. It must be one of the most underrated rock and roll classics of all time.