Monday, November 30, 2009

‘The Blind Side’

“The Blind Side” is a wonderful film, but don’t be fooled by the trailers—it’s not a football movie. The game may be a major part of the plot, but this isn’t “Remember the Titans” (thank goodness).

“The Blind Side” is the story of a Southern, Christian, Republican (gasp!) wife and mother of two who takes in a foster kid and gives him a chance for a better life. Notice I didn’t just say “gives him a better life,” because young Michael Oher (played with expressive understatement by Quinton Aaron) has to earn his success through plain ol’ hard work, both in the classroom and on the football field.

While writer/director John Lee Hancock occasionally allows the film to dip in a little cheese, for the most part this is barebones moviemaking—it doesn’t have the glowing sheen of the aforementioned “Titans” or so many other “heartwarming” tales. The football scenes are possibly the closest “The Blind Side” comes to gag-worthy, but making movies out of dramatic sporting events has never been easy, so I give “Blind Side” a pass for accomplishing them adequately. Besides, they only take up, I’d guess, 15 minutes of the entire film. One thing I like about this movie, though, is how it shines a spotlight on the unglamorous position of offensive lineman, which any Redskins fan can tell you is one of the most important positions on the field.

The rest of the film is all about character and family. Sandra Bullock is outstanding as the other lead role, Leigh Anne Tuohy, a fireball who knows what she wants and is not afraid to put herself on the line to get it. She’s portrayed warmly, to be sure, but not without depth; while rock solid in her determination to help Michael, we get glimpses behind her tough exterior to see the doubts and concerns she has about taking such a risk and the implications for her family. The trailers make Bullock seem like a scenery chewer, but there’s much more to what is probably the performance of her career (though, to be fair, I haven’t seen all her movies).

We’ve heard countless success stories about the Michael Ohers of the world before, but rarely has Hollywood given us such an honest and sympathetic look at the people who help those stories come true. I guess some might complain Tuohy seems too good to be true. To them I say: I’m sorry for you. Because people like the Leigh Anne Tuohy portrayed in “The Blind Side” really do exist. I’m fortunate enough to know and love one, and she and her husband quite literally changed the course of my life, not for anything I ever did for them, but just simply out of their boundless love for others. It’s so refreshing to see someone like Tuohy get a starring role in a well-made movie.

“The Blind Side” isn’t exceptional filmmaking, per se, but the movie is exceptional in its portrayal of people who live their lives according to conservative principles. When was the last time you saw a white, Southern, married, Christian couple who belong to the NRA as anything but the butt of a joke on “Saturday Night Live”? More where this came from, please.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 27, 2009

‘I Love These Chords’: 31 Favorite Songs and the Music of 2009

My Black Friday tradition continues. Anything on this list is worth your shopping time if you’re looking for that perfect stocking stuffer.


Brian Fallon

The heart and soul of The Gaslight Anthem continued to amaze in 2009. He led his band on a barnstorming world tour that saw them go from playing tiny clubs to festivals in front of thousands, converting new fans with every chorus. The ultimate moment of the year came this summer, when none other than Fallon’s hero, Bruce Springsteen, joined them onstage a couple times for “The ’59 Sound,” then returned the favor by letting Fallon sing with E Street on “No Surrender.”

I saw Fallon and TGA three times in three different cities this year; each show was good, and the first and third were downright special. Fallon seems to be handling all the newfound fame and notoriety with grace, humility, and a good head on his shoulders.

Case in point: In January, Fallon put three new solo songs on his personal MySpace page: “The Blues, Mary,” “Tin Pan Alley,” and “Italian Lightning.” Later in the year, though, he decided to take the page down so it wouldn’t be a distraction from the band or look like he was already trying to go out on his own.

The fact he could simply set these songs by the side and move on is rather stunning proof of his abilities. The guy has yet to make a misstep—or write a song I don’t like, as you’ll soon see.

Runners Up

Dave Matthews Band

Florence + The Machine

The Hold Steady

Karen O

Murder by Death

Pearl Jam

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band



“Red of Tooth and Claw,” Murder by Death

For the longest time, I thought Murder by Death’s latest album, “Red of Tooth and Claw,” came out this year, when it’s actually been out since March 2008. Regardless, no album made a stronger impact on me this year than this dark, epic wonder. Led by singer/guitarist Adam Turla, MBD make cowboy songs for the modern era, tales of violence, revenge, and riding the open road. Turla’s voice is like a mixture of Johnny Cash and those dudes from Seven Mary Three and Squirrel Nut Zippers—and it takes a man who can summon that type of gravitas to sing a line like “I’ll be the axe that clears the forest” and make it work.

The not-so-secret weapon is, of course, Sarah Balliet and her eviscerating electric cello, which gives Murder by Death their Old West sound and turns the music into something special. This is cinematic work; I tend not to listen to “Red of Tooth and Claw” in pieces, but instead feel compelled to push play on opener “Comin’ Home” and just let it run its course through one big experience. It’d be easier to name the songs I don’t care for (there are only two) than the highlights, but “Fuego!,” “Ash,” and “’52 Ford” are some of the best of the bunch.

Basically, “Red of Tooth and Claw” sounded like nothing else I heard in 2009, and it was the album I consistently returned to throughout the year whenever I needed a jolt of energy. So what if it didn’t come out in 2009? These songs sound a hundred years old, anyway.

Runners Up

“Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” Dave Matthews Band

“It’s Blitz!,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs

"Keep It Hid," Dan Auerbach

“Lungs,” Florence + The Machine

“No Line on the Horizon,” U2

“You Grab Your Jacket” EP, Cincinnati Rail Tie


“Backspacer,” Pearl Jam

"Changing Horses," Ben Kweller

“Daisy,” Brand New

“Mean Everything to Nothing,” Manchester Orchestra

"Swoon," Silversun Pickups

“Tonight,” Franz Ferdinand

“Wilco (the album),” Wilco

"Working on a Dream," Bruce Springsteen


“The Blues, Mary,” Brian Fallon

Fallon makes no effort to hide his influences, so I can only assume “The Blues, Mary” is his take on Springsteen’s “Nebraska” period (with a little Tom Waits thrown in around the edges). This stark, unforgettable track hooked me from the first strum of those jangly chords. His voice here has a depth and maturity previously unheard in any Gaslight song, yet the melody is as accessible as we’ve come to expect from his writing for the band. The atmosphere is just perfect—quietly, urgently moving, just like “Nebraska.” Throw in Fallon singing “Amazing Grace” in the background as the song winds to a close, and you have the makeup for one of my two favorite songs of the year.

“Look on the Bright Side,” Cincinnati Rail Tie

“Look on the Bright Side” is the flipside to “The Blues, Mary.” Fallon wrote this uptempo number back in 2004 as another solo project he called Cincinnati Rail Tie. It’s one of four songs on the “You Grab Your Jacket” EP he recorded in a friend’s basement, but it only came to light this year. “Look on the Bright Side” is as good a pop/rock song as you’ll hear—it kinda has the feel and sound of Pearl Jam’s “Unplugged” performance, only much lighter in tone. Fallon’s lyrics are simple but powerful, encouraging a depressed friend to take a little time to mourn and to heal, but “don’t waste all of your tears,” and move on to start enjoying life again. It’s a song of empathy, but not pity. And it’s catchy as you’ll ever find.

29 MORE …

“1930,” The Gaslight Anthem (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)

Sometimes songs strike you in new ways, and such was the case with this monster from Gaslight’s debut album, which I heard live at the 9:30 Club last month. The last 45 seconds of this track, starting after the bridge, is one of my favorite moments on any record, ever.

“All Is Love,” Karen O & The Kids (from 2009’s “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack)

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a deceptively haunting movie, and this song evokes that same emotion. It’s supposed to be upbeat and joyful, but there’s a hint of despair and desperation underneath. Karen O and her child choir here sound like a juvenile version of The Arcade Fire—and I mean that as a compliment.

“Breathe,” U2 (from 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon,” as performed 9.29.09 at FedEx Field)

The most exciting track on U2’s most exciting album in more than a decade. From the thunderous drum intro through the final soaring vocal, this is U2 firing on all cylinders, each member of the band attacking the track in their own ferocious way, especially Bono with that new staccato delivery. I love the way it careens back and forth like the band can barely keep the song under control. It contains all the hallmarks of their greatness but sounds completely fresh at the same time. Brilliant.

“Channel,” Joe Henry (from 2009’s “Blood from Stars”)

I don’t know (yet) if Joe Henry is really for me, but this churning, slow-burning epic is darkly beautiful, with its somber piano and big cymbal crashes.

“Comin’ Home,” Murder by Death (from 2008’s “Red of Tooth and Claw”)

How to pick just one song from this fabulous, menacing album? First impressions are the most important, and “Comin’ Home” makes a perfect introduction. Modern-day cowboy music at its best, with bonus points for being featured in the “Inglorious Basterds” trailer.

“Demon Eyes,” The Answer (from 2009’s “Everyday Demons”)

This Irish throwback to AC/DC heavy metal is a wonderful blast from the past. The album wears out pretty quick, but “Demon Eyes” demands playback at maximum volume.

“Full Moon,” The Black Ghosts (from 2008’s “The Black Ghosts”/2008’s “Twilight” soundtrack)

Say what you want about “Twilight” (I really liked the movie), the soundtrack is outstanding. This is the first of two entries from that disc on this list. The first time I heard it I instantly flashed back to my first listen to Jars of Clay’s “Flood.” Same vibe, same great results. Sometimes songs and movies just seem made for each other, and this is one of those times. A strong contender for Song of the Year.

“Garden,” Pearl Jam (from 2009’s “Ten—Remix”)

The new Brendan O’Brien mix of Pearl Jam’s debut album was full of new highlights, but “Garden” stood out the most. A throwaway track on the original, O’Brien removed the sludge and allowed this song to soar.

“Girl from the North Country,” Rosanne Cash (from 2009’s “The List”)

I’m still getting to know Cash’s sublime new album—comprised of songs from her father’s list of the 100 greatest songs ever written—but this Dylan cover is an early standout. Her silky-smooth voice glides effortlessly over these famous lines.

“Goodbye,” P.O.S. (from 2009’s “Never Better”)

My favorite song from P.O.S.’s literate latest—complete with soul singer.

“Hurricane Drunk,” Florence + The Machine (from 2009’s “Lungs”)

Florence Welch’s debut album is a stunning concoction of styles, from blues to rock to pop. “Hurricane Drunk” is from the latter category, and it gives Lilly Allen et. al. a run for their money. Outstanding album.

“Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen (from 1975’s “Born to Run,” as performed live at Verizon Center 11.2.09)

Covered this in depth in my concert review earlier this month. Nothing else to add, other than, you know, I love this song.

“Just Breathe,” Eddie Vedder (from 2009’s “Backspacer,” as performed live at The Spectrum, 10.31.09)

Sure, “Pearl Jam” may be on the CD sleeve, but this is an all-Eddie track, straight out of his “Into the Wild” sessions. It’s also the best song on the album and Vedder’s most accessible, pure love song to date. The idiots who make out to “Better Man” should switch to this one, instead. Only drawback is it sounds like Ed had a cold when he recorded it. Otherwise, wonderful, strings and all.

“Lille,” Lisa Hannigan (from 2008’s “Sea Sew”)

An endearing traditional Irish folk song tucked away at the end of Hannigan’s infectious debut album. Calling her Ireland’s version of Feist is too simplistic, but you get the idea.

“Low Rising,” The Swell Season (from 2009’s “Strict Joy”)

The wonderful duo from “Once” is back with a new album of originals, and they get right at the great stuff with this album-opener, a bluesy affair that evokes Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins” with a Kings of Leon-style electric guitar solo in the middle. This song will make you want to watch the movie all over again.

“O…Saya,” AR Rahman & M.I.A. (from 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack)

This is the scene that told me right away I was going to enjoy “Slumdog.” The movie is good; this song is great.

“Poor Places,” Wilco (from 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)

Jay Bennett’s untimely death earlier this year sent me diving back into Wilco’s masterpiece to remember the contributions the multi-instrumentalist and producer extraordinaire made to one of my all-time favorite bands and albums. In a testament to that CD's greatness, this foreboding track buried near the back struck me anew. Bennett’s contributions are all over it and are made even more evident in light of Wilco’s new album from this year; it’s OK, but pales in comparison to a track like this.

“Shake Me Like a Monkey,” Dave Matthews Band (from 2009’s “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King”)

The first track on DMB’s new album screams “WE’RE BACK!!!” This song has more verve than anything the band’s done in more than a decade. Adding the trumpet was a masterstroke. There are more great songs on “GrooGrux,” but this one alone reminded me why I used to call this group one of my favorite bands. An instant DMB classic.

“Stuck Between Stations,” The Hold Steady (from 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America”)

I got to know this band a lot more in 2009. I’m still not a huge fan, but I understand why so many are. This song, with its huge sound and spitfire lyrics, is Exhibit A.

“Supermassive Black Hole,” Muse (from 2006’s “Black Holes and Revelations”/2008’s “Twilight” soundtrack)

Did Muse hit the jackpot with this song, or what? The coolest track on the “Twilight” soundtrack from the coolest scene in the movie, a combination that turned this British trio into American rock stars overnight. Oh, and the new album is really good, too. Nice timing, there, boys.

“Suspicious Minds,” Elvis Presley (1969)

My attitude toward Elvis has been changing ever since I visited Graceland early last year. I used to think he was the most overrated star in the history of music, mostly because he didn’t write his own songs. But as some of my favorite albums of the decade consist entirely of cover songs, that argument now rings a bit hollow. Elvis may not have written this, his last No. 1 single in the U.S., but the power he brings to it is unbelievable. I had never listened to it much until I saw some random thread on a message board about favorite Presley songs and this one kept coming up. I approached it with fresh ears and fell in love instantly; it’s now my favorite Elvis song, too.

“The Mountain,” Heartless Bastards (from 2009’s “The Mountain”)

A female version of Neil Young. Big, wide, chunky chords grown right out of the earth. Many to choose from on this outstanding new record, but, again, first impressions are hard to beat, and this lead/title track is a great introduction to the band.

“Tin Pan Alley,” Brian Fallon (2009)

Fallon goes country in another amazing solo turn released via MySpace early this year. This guy has yet to write a song I don’t like. Most, like this one, I tend to love.

“Too Shy to Scream,” AFI (from 2009’s “Crash Love”)

This song is all about the drumbeat, which almost sounds like … hip hop? Surely not. Whatever it is, the backbeat for “Too Shy to Scream” is a new twist on the tried-and-true AFI formula, and it works to spectacular effect. It also signals a back-to-basics shift for the band, moving away from the industrial themes of the last record in favor of the tone from 2003’s “Sing the Sorrow.” Either way they go, I’m fine with it, and “Crash Love” is a fine follow up to “Decemberunderground.”

“Trusty Chords,” Hot Water Music (from 2002’s “Caution,” as performed live at the 9:30 Club by The Gaslight Anthem, 10.22.09)

Hot Water Music was one of those bands I just flat-out missed during their heyday. So, thank you, Brian Fallon & Co. for bringing them up. This was an inspired cover choice, and TGA pulled it off masterfully.

“Two Angels,” The Jayhawks (from 1989’s “Blue Earth”/2009’s “Music From the North Country: A Jayhawks Anthology”)

Speaking of bands I missed, this alt-country outfit helped me out by releasing a massive triple-disc retrospective. It’s so much music at one time, I’m still digesting it all. But I knew right from the first few seconds of the first song on the first disc, “Two Angels,” that I was in for a great experience.

“Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”, The Gaslight Anthem (from 2008’s “Senor and the Queen” EP, as performed live at the 9:30 Club 10.22.09)

Lost in last year’s flood of “The ’59 Sound” was Gaslight’s other masterpiece, a four-song EP of perfection called “Senor and the Queen,” one of my favorite 11 minutes, 29 seconds of music this decade. The best of the bunch is this track that builds and builds upon itself, adding layers until it all explodes in the final 45 seconds. If I had to pick my top three TGA songs, this would be one of them.

“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher,” Jackie Wilson (as performed by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at Verizon Center 11.2.09)

One of the best concert moments of my life.

“Zero,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 2009’s “It’s Blitz!)

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs sure threw us a curveball with this one, huh? Though it’s dance-hall trappings made me do a double-take on first listen, “Zero” is pure energy, which is what we’ve come to expect from YYYs. This song, to me, sounds like the NYC trio’s take on early Madonna (think “Material Girl”). It’s their most radio-friendly track since “Maps”—and one of their best.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dave Matthews Band, ‘Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King’

A band is basically an idea: A group of people get together with a notion for a song, or a sound, or a style, and they turn that nebulous connection into reality.

Some bands don’t express that idea quite clearly the first time out, so it takes time to refine, allowing it to evolve, expand. The band expounds upon that core, while never forsaking the original spark.

Others are crystallized right away; the idea hits your ears fully and perfectly realized. These kinds of bands typically burn bright then fade out, because there’s just nowhere for them to go. They gave us their best right away. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Longevity can be overrated.

The Dave Matthews Band, however, is a bit of both. Without question they gave us the best, fully formed version of the idea that is DMB immediately. The band’s first three albums—1993's “Remember Two Things,” 1994’s “Under the Table and Dreaming,” and 1996’s “Crash”—all of them rather fantastic—came from basically the same intense series of songwriting sessions when the group got together in Charlottesville in the early '90s. The heady, unlikely brew of acoustic guitar, saxophone, violin, and extraordinary percussion wasn’t just a spark on first blush, it was a conflagration. Whether you liked it or not, the first time you heard Dave Matthews Band there in the mid-’90s, you got the best of what it had to offer.

It was great.

And it didn’t last.

The band’s fourth album, 1998’s “Before These Crowded Streets,” was the first true batch of songwriting these drunken, pot-smoking misfits encountered in the years since they brought their idea to life. “BTCS” is pretty good, but the signs of fade are clear if you go back and listen to it now: the dark tones, the angry lyrics, the sprawling, sometimes aimless songs that stretch well into the five-minute category and beyond.

By the end of the decade, the band’s eponymous leader had given us his best. He knew the infamous “Lillywhite Sessions” would get the job done, but he didn’t want to just keep treading on the same old thing. So, in hopes of a new idea, he sought out pop craftsman Glen Ballard and the two wrote a batch of songs in just a couple of weeks. Matthews was tricking himself into thinking he’d come up with that new thing, but it was fool’s gold. The resulting album, 2001’s “Everyday,” was different, sure, but it didn’t remain true to the original; Matthews admits as much these days, even while dutifully defending it. Buoyed by its poppy title track, “Everyday” still sold quite well. It’s the only DMB album I don’t own.

The following year DMB finally released the “Lillywhite” recordings, reworked a bit and formally christened “Busted Stuff.” It was fine. There are some good tracks there (“Grace Is Gone” and “Grey Street” among them), but how good could an album really be when the artists are essentially held up without a gun by their devoted fans and forced to release it?

By this point I’d moved on. Dave Matthews Band went from being one of my favorite bands to … some band I used to love and don’t listen to much anymore. 2005’s “Stand Up” barely registered. I bought it, listened to it a few times, forgot it, and the band. Entirely.

And then, LeRoi Moore died.

It’s a complicated thing trying to work out how to feel about an album as good as DMB’s new one, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” when I know it wouldn’t be this good without the passing of the saxophonist extraordinaire. In promoting the album earlier this year, Matthews said it was the quiet Moore who was most fervent about recapturing on record what the band seemingly only could bring to the live experience at this point in its career. The band was already moving in that direction, apparently, when Moore suffered the ATV accident last year that eventually cost him his life. Losing their beloved bandmate made the surviving members of DMB redouble their efforts to make “GrooGrux” (Moore’s nickname) live up to his demands.

They did.

The album begins and ends with a plaintive sax solo—merely a snippet of an idea Moore recorded before his death. In between is the best Dave Matthews Band record in more than a decade.

It starts with “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” a ferocious rocker that recalls a wall-shaking track like “Too Much.” Rashawn Ross’ squealing trumpet is a tremendous addition to the band, and “Monkey” is without question one of the band’s best-ever cuts: exhilarating, sinewy, surprises lurking around every musical turn.

From that point on there really isn’t a bad track in the whole set. It’s such a refreshing return to form, it makes me wonder how this band lost its way so dramatically. Like their earlier albums, “GrooGrux” is filled with joy—not in the lyrics, necessarily, but the overall emotion. The songs flow so easily, on their own and one into another. There’s an openness in the sound DMB hasn’t had in forever; gone is the claustrophobic dark cloud that weighed upon “Stand Up” and “Busted Stuff.”

In its place are starry twinklers “Funny the Way It Is” and “Lying in the Hands of God”; thick grooves “Seven,” “Spaceman,” and “Squirm”; the all-out boogie of “Alligator Pie,” the type of freewheelin’ romp 2005’s “Louisiana Bayou” merely pretended to be. Besides “Monkey,” my two other favorite tracks on the CD are “Why I Am,” a wide open, high-energy gem like only DMB can produce (think “Ants Marching”). The other is “Time Bomb,” reminiscent of the band’s treatment of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” in the way it builds and builds before exploding; the final minute rocks harder and heavier than any song in Dave Matthews Band’s catalog. My only complaint is a tiny one: I would have broken up the back-to-back mellow duo of “Baby Blue” and “You & Me,” which close the album on a bit too quiet of a note.

What makes “GrooGrux” such a triumph is how the band stopped trying to be something they aren’t and got back to what made us all love them in the first place. Gone are the pop trappings that made them sound like any other crappy light-rock band on the radio. But this isn’t a simple rehash, either: it’s the natural progression from “Crash”—it just took them a decade to figure out how to write it. Though not quite as great as those early albums, it comes darn close.

Prior to hearing “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” I thought my Dave Matthews Band fandom was dead and buried. This album brought it back to life.

Grade: A-

Sunday, November 08, 2009

‘And With Them, I Become One’: Pearl Jam, Live on Halloween Night to Close Out the Spectrum, 10.31.09

Last weekend’s epic Pearl Jam show to close out Philly’s legendary Spectrum was a clear example of “be careful what you wish for” to diehard fans.

At 41 songs and three and a half hours, the concert was one of the longest in PJ history. It featured a roll call of deep cuts rarely played, including two songs—“Bugs” (!!!) and “Sweet Lew” (bleh)—making their live debuts. The night was intended to be massive, momentous, memorable. And, for the most part, it was. But in catering to such desires—from both the bandmates themselves and their fans—the show somewhat cracked under the weight of its expectations.

Things started off with a roar with two thematically poignant tracks to open the show. “Why Go” home, indeed? And this certainly would be the “Last Exit” for Philly’s favorite venue. “Corduroy” into “Severed Hand” remains an excellent, fiery combo, as well, and “The Fixer”—the band’s most pop-friendly tune since “Last Kiss”—is already a crowd favorite (yeah, yeah, yeah!).

After this steamy intro, though (literally—it was so hot in there, Ed asked for a fan immediately), Eddie said we would have to “pace ourselves” because we were in for “a long, long night.” All of a sudden it was like the air went out of the room, and the show never really recovered. Pearl Jam concerts as a rule have an emotional intensity that buoys the audience; much of this is due to Eddie’s talent in crafting a setlist each night that will ebb and flow perfectly. Typically, if a show goes overlong, it’s because the band is really feeling it from the crowd and wants to keep riding that wave (last year’s D.C. outing, for a great example).

Last Saturday, by intentionally going for length at the outset, the performance ended up more workmanlike than inspired. Not that they weren’t feeling it, mind you, because they were; it was clear all night how much it meant to the band to have the honor—and responsibility—of closing down such a building. But it seemed like more effort than elation some of the time.

This band, to its undying credit, is quite aware of its fanbase. The Halloween show was open to as many fan club members as wanted to come (typically there are only a small percentage of seats available per gig), so they knew the place was literally packed to the rafters with people who actually know “Sweet Lew.” To give you an idea, I’ve been in the fan club since 1998 and I had the “worst” seats to a PJ show in a decade—side stage in the last row of the lower bowl. I heard some Ten Clubbers were even up in the 400 level.

So to please a crowd of people who if they hadn’t been in the building would have been checking message boards at home to see what was played, Eddie & Co. went to the Wayback Machine to pull out as many rarities and b-sides as they could find. “Bugs” was the obvious highlight; the macabre “Vitalogy” track has never been attempted live before, and it almost didn’t work here, either, as Ed had to restart it after a failed first attempt and much fan pleading. Never thought the little song could spur such an intense reaction, but it certainly did—a PJ Moment that will be long remembered. “Pilate,” from 1998’s “Yield,” was played for the first time in more than nine years; “Out of My Mind,” an improv performed just twice way back in 1994 and released as the b-side to “Not for You,” was a huge and welcome surprise—and sounded great. Others such as “You Are,” “Rats,” “Glorified G,” “Satan’s Bed,” “I’m Open,” “Lowlight,” and “Smile” also definitely qualify for the rare air category.

But you know what? There’s a reason a lot of these songs don’t make the setlist on a nightly basis: They don’t get it done. Of all the infrequently played cuts we heard last Saturday, the only one I’m shocked isn’t in heavier rotation is “Smile”; its soaring “I miss you already” refrain was especially timely and appropriate for the Spectrum.

I was looking forward to hearing how PJ’s new album, “Backspacer,” translated to the live setting, and I certainly got the chance with eight of the record’s 11 songs played Saturday night. In general, they didn’t change my opinion: “Backspacer” to me feels like a really nice collection of b-sides, but there isn’t one track on there that stands out as a Pearl Jam classic. “Got Some” and “The Fixer” are two of the best of the bunch, but I cannot understand all the love for “Amongst the Waves” and especially “Unthought Known”; both sound like retreads—the former of “In Hiding” and the latter of “Love Boat Captain.” “Johnny Guitar” and “Speed of Sound,” meanwhile, I don’t see surviving for another tour. My favorite “Backspacer” track of the night was “Just Breathe,” with Ed accompanied onstage by a string quartet.

By contrast, several "staples" sounded as good as ever. "Alive" is always a highlight, despite Ed inexplicably flubbing the first verse. The trio of "Black" (with the welcome "We Belong Together" tag)/"Insignificance"/"Life Wasted" closed out the main set in bravura fashion. "Do the Evolution" wrung every last ounce of energy from the crowd as the show wound to a close. And "Porch" … one of the best versions I've been in attendance for, starting with the jazzy Ed guitar intro, and ending with him standing on a stack of speakers out in the crowd. Just fantastic.

The biggest stars of Halloween night, though, were the covers. To start the second encore, the band brought the freakin’ house down with a spot-on version of Devo’s “Whip It,” complete with costumes and robot moves. Infectiously fun and bravely unpretentious, it was without question one of the best Pearl Jam moments of my life. “Crown of Thorns” arrived just two songs later, introduced by Ed as going back “as far as we can go,” and it was as fantastic as ever, played for just the 14th time in the band’s history. “Rockin’ in the Free World” was its usual sterling self, this time complete with confetti and balloons filling the air as the night drew to a close. And I will never tire of Mike McCready closing a show with a Hendrixian version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

As a total Pearl Jam geek, last Saturday night was an utter thrill. I freaked out with equal measure over all those rarities and would have kicked myself for missing out on what was a truly special event. They certainly didn’t disappoint (when do they ever?), and there were some specific moments that I'll never, ever forget (one more: Ed bouncing a basketball next to a mic onstage as part of the rhythm section for "Sweet Lew").

But it was also a good lesson that more isn’t always better and setlists on a page don’t always translate to transcendence. Halloween was my 12th PJ show, and I don’t know if it cracks my top 5.

How awesome is that?

Pearl Jam

The Spectrum




Watch It Die (Ed w/Bad Religion)


Why Go

Last Exit


Severed Hand

The Fixer

Small Town

You Are

Amongst the Waves

Even Flow


Unthought Known

Daughter/Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2

Johnny Guitar


Out of My Mind

I’m Open

I Got Shit

Glorified G



Life Wasted


Just Breathe

The End


Speed of Sound


Inside Job


Spin the Black Circle



Whip It

Got Some

Crown of Thorns

Satan’s Bed

Sweet Lew

Do the Evolution

Better Man/Save It for Later



Rockin’ in the Free World

Yellow Ledbetter/Star-Spangled Banner

Show Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes