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

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