Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Reason I’ll Be Back: Eddie Vedder, Live at the Warner Theatre in D.C., 8.16.08//8.17.08

Eddie Vedder spent two nights in my town this weekend—and, to think, I was only going to see him once.

I was one of the few lucky ones last month who managed to score a fan club ticket to the first of two immediate sellout performances at D.C.’s intimate Warner Theatre (about 1,800 seats, the smallest venue on this brief East Coast tour); there couldn’t have been more than a few hundred available, and they were gone, literally, in seconds. Having paid attention to the somewhat static setlists from his West Coast swing in April, I figured one night would be enough.

That is, of course, until I pulled a fourth-row seat for Night 2 on Saturday afternoon (thanks Red Mosquito!). With that ticket waiting right there on my screen, I couldn’t turn it down.

Definitely the right decision.

As he’s gotten more comfortable with this whole solo gig thing, the setlists have started to open up quite a bit. During Sunday night’s performance, Ed mentioned he’s worked up about 60 songs in total for this “experiment” as he calls it (hence the lab coats); during his twofer in D.C., he played 38 of them, and if I were to have missed either show, I’d be kicking myself today.

And wow, even with 16 repeats from Night 1 to Night 2, the two shows were quite different in feel and tone. Saturday night, Ed was very loose, gabbing it up heavily between songs (thus you get a nearly three-hour show). There was quite a bit of political banter, as expected (he told one heckler the second night: “If you didn’t think you were gonna get a heavy does of this, what the f**k were you thinking?”). Both nights Ed introduced Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” by commenting on its roots as a civil rights anthem, and how he’s adapted it to his vision of Obama as president (Ed’s supporting Obama—shocker). “Masters of War” was its usual stellar self (Ed absolutely nails this song), made even more potent by the venue’s close proximity to the White House (which Ed mentioned). Sunday night featured Ed’s lame rendition of folk protest song “Here’s to the State,” and both nights’ sets included his own (poor) anti-war anthem, “No More” (Saturday’s performance did feature a touching intro about the song’s inspiration, injured Iraq war veteran Tomas Young, whom Ed said has taken an unfortunate turn for the worse in recent weeks).

My favorite politically oriented speech came Saturday (I forget the song), when he mentioned how ridiculous the whole political realm has gotten in this country, where it’s like we’re all rooting for our favorite sports team. He went on to say you should never say “I’ll never vote for a Democrat, or I’ll never vote for a Republican” (even though he DOES say that in “Even Flow,” but whatever …). He referenced the departed Johnny Ramone, a dear friend of Ed’s and a staunch Republican; Ed said the conversations they had were important, and beneficial to them both. I always bring up Johnny whenever someone asks me how I, a conservative, can be a Pearl Jam fan, so it was nice to finally hear that from Ed himself.

But there was plenty other great stuff in there, besides politics. I don’t take notes when I go to shows, but at a given Pearl Jam concert I can typically remember most of the unique highlights; I had no chance after these two shows back to back, though. A favorite moment from Saturday included his explanation of the whole “experiment” mentality of this tour. He said he saw a photo of a Beatles recording session and the producers were standing at the board wearing what looked like lab coats, which inspired him to adopt them for him and his crew. He also provided a lengthy discussion of his involvement with “Into the Wild” and, specifically, his posthumous love for the man that film was based on, Chris McCandless. It was a touching preface to the mid-concert suite of “ITW” material.

I love how he’s put the batch of songs off the soundtrack together to basically tell McCandless’ story; on Saturday, he even mumbled, “And his story starts like this …” leading into “Setting Forth.” When I wrote about this album last year, I was disappointed several of these songs weren’t fleshed out more and simply edited down to fit the movie. He doesn’t alter them in the live setting, either, but they do take on extra power because you can see, hear, and feel how important they are to him. Quite remarkable.

The “ITW” run was definitely a highlight of both nights: He attacks “Far Behind” with all the vigor captured on the album, while “Guaranteed” and especially “Rise” are beautiful, the latter featuring brilliant work by Ed on the mandolin (the only song he knows on the f***king thing, he told us Saturday).


Let me take a moment here to address “Guaranteed,” in particular. As the final song of both the album and the film, it serves as Ed’s summary of McCandless’ life. The fourth of six verses goes like this:

Everyone I come across, in cages they bought
They think of me and my wandering, but I’m never what they thought
I’ve got my indignation, but I’m pure in all my thoughts
I’m alive

Performing this song live, Ed really hits that “I’m alive,” and I realized he could have written “Guaranteed”—and especially this verse—about himself, too. One of my favorite Pearl Jam moments of all time was Ed’s discussion of “Alive” during 2006’s “VH1 Storytellers,” where he said a song he’d originally written about pain and betrayal has been transformed into one of hope by the band’s audience. This verse could be his way of putting that feeling into song—making “Guaranteed” a companion piece, or an answer to, “Alive,” 17 years later. Chris McCandless was trying to escape what he felt was an oppressive, predetermined life, while for decades now Ed's been trying to escape a painful childhood that could have so easily predetermined his path—and probably would have, had it not been for music. Consider some other scattered lines from “Guaranteed”:

“All my destinations will accept the one that’s me/So I can breathe” (“breath” is a recurring theme in Ed’s writing)
“Circles they grow and they swallow people whole”
“Holding me like gravity are places that pull”
“Late at night I hear the trees, they’re singing with the dead” (“Release,” anyone?)

Matter of fact, the entire “Into the Wild” album could be read as Ed subtext. How about this verse from “Rise”:

Gonna rise up
Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold

Or this stanza from “No Ceiling”:

I been wounded
I been healed
Now for landing I been
Landing I been cleared

And, finally, the last line of the entire record, from “Guaranteed”: “I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me/Guaranteed”. Like “I’m alive,” he really hits that last word, as if it’s a proclamation.


Anyway, back to the shows … So, so many great moments of music. Just about all of the choices Ed’s made for these solo gigs have been spot on, fitting his voice perfectly. While his guitar playing has obviously greatly improved over the years, his vocal performance over the course of these two nights was amazing. I’m having trouble keeping my list of favorites to only 10:

• “I Am Mine” was a surefire standout, and has this summer—upon hearing it live for the first time—become an all-time PJ fave. On record, it’s a little too simple an arrangement for the full band, and leaves me feeling like they didn’t have enough to do. This is mostly solved in the live setting due to the energy they always bring to every performance, but “I Am Mine” is most at home with just Ed and a guitar, including some furiously fast strumming on his part.

• “Forever Young” is a tremendous cover choice from deep in the Dylan catalog. Ed’s version is slower, more serious, and, yes, superior to the original, from Dylan’s 1974 “Planet Waves.”

• “Far Behind”/“Rise”/“Millworker” was my favorite run of songs from Night 1. I still can’t get over how good “Rise” sounds on that mandolin, and “Millworker” rivals “Forever Young” as my favorite cover from the experience, for basically the same reasons.

• I was desperately hoping for “Throw Your Arms Around Me,” one of my all-time fave Vedder covers. The two-man version with Liam Finn is excellent.

• My love for “Hard Sun” is well documented at this point, so it comes as no surprise this show-closer was phenomenal. Ed uses a reel-to-reel deck on stage to play the main backing track, then adds Finn on drums and straps on his own electric guitar for the accent parts. It’s perfect. Exhilarating doesn’t even come close. Spiritual is more accurate.

• I was actually in the building when “Parting Ways” made its live debut back in 2000. I’ve grown to appreciate the “Binaural” finale even more since, and Vedder’s electric version with Finn is, well, electric.

• Winning the award for Surprise of the Weekend was the totally unexpected “All Along the Watchtower,” made doubly cool when Ed told Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty to put down his video camera (Canty was part of the crew filming the show for, hopefully, an eventual DVD release) and get behind the drum kit for this roof-raiser. Two “Watchtowers” in two months—and both shockers!

• “Driftin’” feels like a throwaway Christmas single jaunt, which, yeah, it is. Except for the fact that when Ed plays it, he throws every ounce of effort into it and just nails the thing. I love this song.

• And, finally, the no-question-about-it highlight of both nights: “Arc,” which closes the first encore. Here Ed records a series of wordless vocal strains and loops one over top of the others so they fit together perfectly and fill the theater with about a dozen different variations on his voice. Sunday night I was sitting only a few feet from the speakers, and when he added a bass hum to the mix, it rattled my chest. He then moved back to the main mic and adds an insurgent howl part similar to what you hear on “The Wolf” from “Into the Wild,” which gave me goosebumps. Finally, he finishes the recordings and walks the front of the stage, shaking hands with everyone (I missed him by a few feet, but oh well, I’ve had my moment for a PJ lifetime), while the symphony of Eds continues to play. It’s the most inspired moment of an inspirational evening.

But as is always the case with Eddie Vedder, you have to take the good with the bad. His freewheelin’ vibe invited a barrage of loud, ludicrous comments from a handful of drunk or otherwise obnoxious cretins in the crowd. In a venue this small, even the people at the back of the balcony could easily be heard down at stage level. Take that intimacy and mix in a good bit of alcohol, and you have a recipe that’s anywhere from annoying to nearly disastrous. Saturday was especially bad, as people just WOULD. NOT. SHUT. UP. Yelling out the most ridiculous things, too: “Vedder for president!” some harpie right behind me screeched; when Ed played “Sometimes,” some former frat boy over my other shoulder hollered “No Code!”—uh, yeah, we all know the album that song’s from. The cries of “I love you, Eddie” were ubiquitous. (If you want more examples, go here.)

For his part, I thought Ed could’ve handled the situation better, maybe taking a cue from Springsteen’s solo tour a few years back and laying down the ground rules early. A stern “shut up” to the most annoying hecklers probably would have helped, too, but it’s just not his style to come down hard on people who come to see him—he was one of us, too, and, really, still is. Instead—especially Saturday—he tried subtlety; unfortunately, drunk people do not take hints, and it did detract from Ed’s performance somewhat. Early on, he seemed to get pissed and flustered, flubbing several songs before locking into a groove midway through the set.

Sunday was better, as he seemed to come out of the blocks more focused and closer to the take-no-prisoners mode I've seen at previous PJ gigs. It helped changing up the show to open with “Sometimes,” thus getting the “Why isn’t he playing Pearl Jam?” crowd off his back right away. Ed addressed that particular moronic subset Sunday night, too, quipping “we were just here, what, six weeks ago?” Oh, and in case you were wondering, “Sometimes” was tremendous—much more forceful and angry than its original recording, complete with Ed using a “stomp box” for a rhythm section (basically a wooden box with a mic inside). I’ll give the crowds credit for one thing: During the actual songs everyone was deadly silent, except for the appropriate places for cheers. On Sunday Ed cut down on the between-song chatter significantly, reducing the amount of downtime for those unruly “fans” to make their mark. What really got them quiet, though, was Ed’s metaphor that the shouts sounded, to him, like a mangy dog trying to hump his leg.

In the end, what impressed me most about the two-night stand in D.C. was what I’ve always liked about Eddie Vedder for all this time: Despite his fame, fortune, and success, he still seems like a regular guy. He’s never wanted to be or acted like a rock star, and he certainly wasn’t even close to pretending to be one this weekend. He was just a guy with a batch of guitars (and his beloved uke—another great story about how much he adores that “happy little instrument”), and some songs he loves. One of my favorite little moments of the weekend came when he strapped on his electric guitar for "Parting Ways" and the spotlight reflected out into the crowd, catching his eye. "Oh, I can do that," he said, and like a kid with a new toy proceeded to bounce the light around the venue—even spotlighting the guy who apparently requested the song earlier in the day (nice choice!).

When I first fell in love with Pearl Jam, it wasn’t Ed’s lyrics or even Mike McCready’s guitar heroics that drew me in. It was the feeling their music evoked in me. It tweaked all the right buttons in my teenage self. Over the years, Pearl Jam’s music still does that—I can pogo with the best of ’em when so moved—but what’s kept me with the band all this time is their passion. Despite our difference of political beliefs, our musical ethics are right in line, and that’s the most important thing.

Regarding Ed specifically, I’ve never thought he was an exceedingly gifted lyricist (though, to be fair, poetry was never my strong suit). His most meaningful songs for me come when he’s writing from the heart; for the past decade or so, though, his material’s been predominantly from his head, leading to an overly wordy, workmanlike effort (contrast “Life Wasted” with “Marker in the Sand” from the most recent album, for instance).

Eddie Vedder’s ability to emote and connect, however, both on record and onstage, is unparalleled. He's a man who truly does live in the moment. The words may come out rough around the edges—or downright wrong—sometimes, but the intent for honest expression, interaction, and experience is always there. It’s obvious from the humble way he carries himself, how respectful he is for his fans, his peers, and his musical elders and heroes (hence, he’s the best cover artist of this—or maybe any—generation). I feel like I saw a real human being laying himself out there this weekend, warts and all, not a self-aggrandizing performer—when he called himself “a professional,” it was with tongue firmly in cheek.

This is why after the unexpected and overwhelming success of “Ten” and “Vs.” in the early ’90s, he led the band in pulling back, keeping a shred of normalcy and reality about them. This is why he esteems others’ talents and music well above his own. This is why his band’s shows continue to exceed expectations. And this is why he continues to draw thousands of fans like me, selling out arenas big and small worldwide.

So I guess the best way to wrap this whole amazing experience up is with the man’s own words. Again from “No Ceiling”:

I leave here believing more than I had
And there’s a reason I’ll be
A reason I’ll be back

Eddie Vedder
Warner Theatre
Washington, D.C.

Main Set:
Walking the Cow (Daniel Johnston cover)
Trouble (Cat Stevens cover)
I Am Mine
Dead Man
Man of the Hour
Masters of War
[new song—“Unknown Thought”?]
Setting Forth
No Ceiling
Far Behind
Millworker (James Taylor cover)
Soon Forget
Broken Hearted [this was on the widely-circulated fan setlist, but I don’t remember it being played]
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

First Encore:
Blackbird (Beatles cover)
Small Town
Society (w/Liam Finn)
Parting Ways (w/Liam Finn)
No More

Second Encore:
Hard Sun (w/Liam Finn)

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Main Set:
Trouble (Cat Stevens cover)
Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan cover)
Around the Bend
I Am Mine
I’m Open
Man of the Hour
Setting Forth
No Ceiling
Far Behind
You’re True
If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out (Cat Stevens cover)
Forever Young (Bob Dylan cover)

First Encore:
Here’s to the State (John Ochs cover—sorta)
Blackbird (Beatles cover)
Society (w/Liam Finn)
Throw Your Arms Around Me (w/Liam Finn)
No More

Second Encore:
All Along the Watchtower (w/Brendan Canty of Fugazi on drums)
Hard Sun (w/Liam Finn)

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

***One final note: As I mentioned earlier, the D.C. shows were being taped, and Ed made mention of a future “document” of this tour. If this does come to pass, I will most likely be visible at least some of the time, based on my position Sunday night. I make no claims to any kind of cool-looking decorum during that show. I’m sure I looked like a complete crazy man at times. Wouldn’t have it any other way.***

Sunday, August 03, 2008

'Spook Country,' William Gibson

"Obscurity is much praised by elitists, but I disdain it. The audience starts out knowing nothing about your story. It's your job, as a storyteller, to let them in on it. … What takes talent is clarity." —Orson Scott Card

Well, William Gibson don't do clarity, and that's the primary reason why I'm one of the only people I know who loves his novels. He is, almost exclusively, purposefully and doggedly obtuse. He drops you into his novels like you should already know what's going on, which, of course, you never do. I take long gaps between Gibson reads, because my mind has to be sharp and in tip-top shape to keep up with them.

All that being said, his latest novel, 2007's "Spook Country," stinks. The second novel he's written in the present (as opposed to his uncannily imagined future), this work is marred by too much intention. It's easy to imagine a situation where Gibson heard the news reports about "illegal wiretapping" and decided to write a novel about it. Or, in the least, that's the idea that set him off into "Spook Country," which deals tangentially in government conspiracies, no-bid contracts, and the like. For the first time, a Gibson novel reads along the lines of a DNC talking points memo. In a book that is so disjointed, murky, and impenetrable (even for Gibson), these obviously political references stick out like a black-helicopter strobe light in the middle of a pitch-dark night. (Speaking of "dark knights" (OK, sorta), the brilliant Christopher Nolan film does a much better job engaging this issue of surveillance than Gibson's book does).

The most egregious fault of "Spook Country," though, comes back to Gibson's actual writing. The story centers around three central characters, and Gibson devotes a chapter to each back-to-back-to-back almost exclusively until the book reaches its conclusion and the individual plotlines begin to merge. The chapters are quite brief, many less than two pages, so you never really get to know the characters at all or feel anything for them, which has always been a strong point for Gibson. One of the three (I won't tell you which one), serves almost no purpose whatsoever, and having read through the entire novel I still cannot figure out why he receives so much ink.

It's less than 30 minutes until the first Redskins' preseason game begins, and I feel I'm not being very clear, and certainly not very poignant, in my criticism, so I should just end here. "Spook Country" simply tries too hard, even for Gibson. In identifying so clearly the target of his paranoia, Gibson in turn forfeited his ability to pinpoint cultural phenomena, a skill he has been so freakishly accurate with in the past. It's the first book of his I haven't enjoyed at any level, no matter how difficult he always is to read.

Grade: C-

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Class: Defined

Is it any wonder I love Art Monk?

I didn't think I could be a bigger fan of this man before this day, but his humble, classy, heartfelt, sincere, and downright bold Hall of Fame induction speech reminded me why I looked up to him as a kid, why his was the only jersey I ever wanted (which I wore today and will continue to wear every Sunday all season), why I cheered for him and rooted for his success, and why he was one of the first pop culture figures of my youth who, through his example, showed me being a Christian was OK.

Ever since he retired I had planned on going to the induction ceremony, but the details just didn't work out. I sure wish I could have been a part of that four-minute ovation, though. It was emotional just watching it on TV. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy—and, unfortunately, it rarely does. His speech made me wish I was friends with Art Monk the man, not the football player. It was simply tremendous, and like so many Redskins fans, for the last—and, perhaps, greatest—time, I am proud to call myself one of his admirers.

The long wait was definitely worth it.

Oh, and Darrell, you were great, too.