Saturday, October 26, 2013

‘Happy Birthday to … Us!’: Pearl Jam, Live in Philly, 10.22.13

Pearl Jam and I both celebrated anniversaries Tuesday night in Philly. For the band, it marked 23 years since their very first show back on Oct. 22, 1990. For me, Tuesday night was my 15th PJ show in 15 years, a journey that began across the river in Camden back in 1998 and has seen me visit this city four times to see this band play. I've never come close to being disappointed. 

So in honor of the occasion Pearl Jam was understandably in a celebratory mood Tuesday night. By the end of the three-hour show Eddie was working on his third bottle of wine and had popped the cork on champagne that he shared judiciously with audience members in front of the stage. Pearl Jam tends to have two moods when it comes to live shows: fun or intense. Both have their own charms, but I prefer the latter. Tuesday night’s performance was the former. Like I said, it felt like a celebration.

After constructing setlists basically the same way for two decades, Eddie’s been changing it up a bit this tour—“experimenting,” as he puts it. Instead of opening with one quiet/mellow number that leads into a run of uptempo rockers, the shows are building slowly, with three or four softer choices to start off. I’m actually not a big fan of the change as I think it keeps the audience pent up for too long, but I can’t argue with the choices Ed made Tuesday night other than first song “Pendulum,” off the new record. When the band walks onstage, you want the first note of the show to be instantly recognizable … an a-ha moment. The opening strains of “Release,” “Long Road,” “Sometimes,” and all the others they typically use as openers have this effect. “Pendulum,” though, sorta drifts into existence; it doesn’t work well to grab you right out of the gates.

After that, though, the show really took off. “Wash” is one of my all-time favorite PJ songs (and was used as the opener to the epic show I saw in this same building back in October 2005). And then “Nothingman” provided the first goosebump moment of the evening, as toward the end Eddie stepped away from the mic to let the crowd sing and the lighting guy bathed the floor in a warm glow; from my perspective sidestage, it was a beautiful thing to behold. 

The energy picked up another notch with “Lightning Bolt,” the title track off the new album. This one is growing on me quickly; I don’t like, again, how it sorta meanders into existence (I much prefer PJ songs make bold statements with strong riffs right off the bat) but the song really picks up steam as it goes along, culminating in a four-guitar attack by the end that sounds like the song “Marker in the Sand” should’ve been. The final couple minutes of this track work really well in the live setting.

The new songs were a mixed bag, overall. Lead single “Mind Your Manners” suffers the same fate as its older cousin, “Spin the Black Circle”: The band has a real hard time reining in this careening animal—it’s almost too fast and rambunctious for its own good (still a killer track, though). “Infallible” is a nice cut on the album, but it doesn’t work as well in person, as it just kinda does the same thing over and over and doesn’t go anywhere; it reminds me of “Rival” in a lot of ways. “Sirens” is another song I like more and more every time I hear it, while “Yellow Moon” was much better live than on the record, showing a lot more soul. “Future Days,” meanwhile, didn’t do a whole lot for me. 

The band really swung for the fences with the setlist, playing at least one song from every album along with plenty of b-sides and a couple covers. Other than the glaring misstep of “Amongst the Waves,” the rest of the main set was fantastic, mixing rarities like “Satan’s Bed” and “Untitled” with strong rockers like “Hail, Hail,” “Do the Evolution,” “Corduroy,” “Got Some” (still sounds as good as it did on the Backspacer tour), and “MFC.” 

Two songs really stood out, though: For whatever reason this felt like the best version of “Present Tense” I’ve ever heard in person; Eddie, in particular, really ramped up his intensity in the second verse, which sparked the band as they start to pick up steam heading into the climactic instrumental jam. And then “World Wide Suicide” was given one of the best intros I’ve ever seen: Ed mentioned that a U.S. soldier who served in Afghanistan had sent them a letter and a gift, and how special it was to them; somehow the guy was sitting close to the front sidestage and got Ed’s attention, so Ed leaves the stage, walks up into the crowd and hugs the guy, and I think signs an autograph for him. It was a real special moment leading into one of the band’s best songs from the past decade. 

They’ve been doing mini-acoustic sets to start the first encores for years now. In theory this sounds great, but it can sometimes hurt the buzz of the crowd a little bit when they come out and sit astride stools and play a bunch of slow songs. I know they’ve done this before in the encores and I’ve liked it, but for whatever reason it just didn’t work that well Tuesday night. Maybe it was the song selection, with two new ones sandwiching “Come Back,” a song I love but one that can feel too long sometimes. Perhaps instead they should just do an entire acoustic set combining the choices from the opening set and the encore. 

All that was wiped away in a heartbeat, though, as they abandoned the stools and ripped into the one-two punch of “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust.” Ed introduced “Breath” by saying back when they first started playing their sets were only 11 songs long, and this one was usually No. 10. For them to play those two epic b-sides from the “Singles” soundtrack back to back floored me and was without question my favorite moment of the entire night. 

The first encore closed with a great combo. I’m shocked by this, but “Unthought Known” has aged quite well since the Backspacer tour. This is one of my lesser-favorite PJ songs, but I have to admit it went over huge Tuesday night—much better than I remember from a few years back. And then … “Porch.” Wow. Twenty-two years on and this song is still just as powerful and amazing as ever. This performance was memorable for the band playing with the lights hanging from their rig high above the stage; during the song the lantern-looking fixtures dropped down to stage level and the band started pushing them around, getting them swinging back and forth during the mid-song interlude. And then as the final chorus ramped back up, Ed jumped on one and started swinging back and forth on it as "Porch" and the first encore crashed to a close. It’s the 49-year-old version of climbing into the rafters, I guess (and also reminiscent of Bono swinging on his lit-up mic during “Ultraviolet” from the U2360 tour). (Note: At some point in the encores they asked the crowd to join them in singing happy birthday to themselves; it sounds self-aggrandizing but it really wasn’t—it was quite fun.)

In a callback to the 2005 Philly show, the band opened the second encore by once again going around to the rear side of the stage to perform “Last Kiss” for those sitting back there. For anyone who hates on this song, I say: Get over it. The rest of the encore was basically what we’ve come to expect from the close of a PJ show. I would’ve preferred the previous night’s “I Believe in Miracles” or “Sonic Reducer” to our “Leaving Here,” but let’s not get too picky. The final combo of “Alive” into “Baba” into “Yellow Ledbetter”—all with the house lights on—sent the crowd home ebullient, myself very much included. 

Seeing Pearl Jam in Philly is always a good idea; Ed mentioned during the show how much the band is still in awe of their bond with cities along the East Coast and how much they love playing here. I was also glad to be in the building to finally see one of their anniversary shows, and they went all-out in trying to deliver a memorable experience. There is no such thing as going through the motions with this band; they wouldn’t even know how to do it if they wanted to. 

And that’s why they’re still selling out 18,000-seat arenas 23 years after they started playing these songs. 

Pearl Jam
Wells Fargo Center

Lightning Bolt
Mind Your Manners
Amongst the Waves
Hail, Hail
Satan’s Bed
Even Flow
Got Some
Given to Fly
Present Tense
World Wide Suicide
Do the Evolution
Better Man

Yellow Moon
Come Back
Future Days
State of Love and Trust
Unthought Known

Last Kiss
Leaving Here
Baba O’Riley
Yellow Ledbetter

Show Time: 3 hours