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?
Watch It Die (Ed w/Bad Religion)
Amongst the Waves
Daughter/Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2
Out of My Mind
I Got Shit
Speed of Sound
Spin the Black Circle
Crown of Thorns
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