When you’ve seen a band—in this case, Pearl Jam—a bunch of times, it’s the little things that start to stand out the most. A couple weeks ago in Bristow, Virginia, it was the opening riff to “All Those Yesterdays” that actually choked me up a little bit.
I’m not one of those get-choked-up-type people, either. It’s just a rock concert, after all. But, man, for some reason that song really hit me. “All Those Yesterdays” is the closing track to my favorite PJ album, “Yield,” and it’s quite a rarity—this month’s airing was only the 13th time the band’s played the majestic track in the 12 years since it was released, and just the fourth time since the end of the ’98 tour (these are the kinds of stats Pearl Jam geeks like me get all worked up over). Back in college I found one of the few early live versions on the Internet and listened to it so often, that’s the one stuck in my head more than the official studio cut. So finally getting to hear it in person—from 17 rows back, no less—was quite the Pearl Jam Moment for me. Coupling the song with “Faithfull” was a nice touch, too.
Though I prefer seeing Pearl Jam indoors, the main set from this show was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. It was perfectly paced, with none of those jarring “Lukin”-into-“Wishlist” transitions Eddie Vedder is wont to concoct. Opening with “Small Town” was an unusual but welcome change, as it got the crowd singing immediately (HEEELLLOOOOO!!!!). The band then moved into one of the most intense runs I’ve ever seen them play outdoors. “Got Some” from “Backspacer” is definitely a keeper.
They took the ferocity down a touch but amped up the emotion with “Given to Fly,” which they can play at every show I ever attend, no complaints. That led into a surprisingly early, but nevertheless welcome, version of “Present Tense,” which is one song that definitely plays better outside. Though I’m still not a fan of “Unthought Known,” it was paired well with an all-time favorite, “Insignificance”; those two songs seem cut from the same “Binaural”-era cloth. “Insignificance” allowed the band a chance to ramp back up into a mercifully shorter-than-usual “Even Flow,” followed well by the gut punch of “Comatose.”
Though I’ve already mentioned “Faithfull,” I should point out drummer Matt Cameron seems to be doing a better job of tempo lately, which is noticeable on a song like this. For much of his Pearl Jam career he’s kept their songs at a lightning-fast pace, more akin to the near-metal of Soundgarden than the classic rock vibe of his current band. As a result, PJ just flew through tracks like “Faithfull,” which actually require a more modest speed. All that seems to have changed, as Cameron—at least for this night—kept himself under control, and it did the songs so much good.
The only bad moment of the entire show came after a sterling version of “Black,” which not only featured a brief “We Belong Together” tag, but also an improv based on what I believe was U2’s “Bad.” One reason I hate seeing shows in D.C. is artists always feel the need to dip their toes in politics, like it’s an obligation of being in town. Ed needs no excuse to wax moronic on social issues of the day, of course, but this night was without question the worst rant I’ve ever heard—and I’ve been subjected to my fair share. He went on and on about how lobbyists for companies like Goldman Sachs should “literally kill yourselves.” After grunting this repeatedly, he sorta came to his senses and tried to walk it back a bit, but by then it was too late. I’ve put up with a lot of Ed’s BS over the years, but this was untenable. The worst part was, it totally took me out of the show for a few minutes, which means I basically checked out for “The Fixer,” one of my faves off “Backspacer.”
The crowd response to “All Those Yesterdays” apparently impressed Ed, because he said, “So, that’s the kinda shit you like? OK.” My little geek heart soared at that, thinking the band would uncork something really crazy; it didn’t quite work out that way, but there were definitely a few major highlights in the encores, starting with “The End,” which Vedder hadn’t trotted out yet on this mini-May tour. I’ve come around on this song, certainly, from the first time I heard it last fall; on a night of seemingly endless perfect pairings, “The End” into “Just Breathe” was another brilliant one.
So how do you transition out of two quiet, acoustic numbers? Easy: “Garden”!!! Another personal debut, I’ve really come around on this one since hearing the Brendan O’Brien remixed version on last year’s “Ten” re-release. It’s a rarity considering the song’s been around for nearly two decades, so “Garden” was another welcome treat. Pairing it with a ferocious version of “Why Go” … priceless (how great is it to have this song back in regular rotation and at full flight?).
Something funny: The guy in front of me literally did not move for the entire concert. Not a head bob, not a fist pump, nothing. All of the sudden toward the end of “Life Wasted” he starts bouncing around like crazy, then stops, and doesn’t move again for the rest of the show. I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves this song and thinks it kills in concert.
“Better Man” was a great way to open the second encore, allowing one more massive singalong before we head off into the traffic jam of a Bristow night. “Spin the Black Circle” was good, too, and “Alive” is just, well, awesome, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. But the final highlight of the night came right before the end in a totally shocking version of “Sonic Reducer.” This is easily one of my favorite PJ covers, yet it’s fallen by the wayside in recent years. It needs to come back. Pure, glorious energy from start to finish. The show ended with “Yellow Ledbetter,” which is fine, but “Reducer” was my finale.
On the whole, this show was about as good as Pearl Jam gets outdoors: Perfectly paced, wonderful setlist sequencing, and a few true surprises thrown into the mix. I couldn’t ask for anything more out of a Thursday night in the Middle of Nowhere, Virginia. I don’t know how it’s possible, but this band just keeps getting better and better at what they do—and they already are one of the best.
Live in Bristow, Virginia
World Wide Suicide
Brain of J
Given to Fly
All Those Yesterdays
Black/We Belong Together/Bad/improv
Do the Evolution
Better Man/Save It for Later
Spin the Black Circle
Yellow Ledbetter/Star-Spangled Banner
Show Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes