Catching Up: Chicago Shows Review-o-rama

by Kathy Davis on September 3, 2009

It happens: TFT Kath heads to see Pearl Jam live, blows a gasket of musical PJ delight and then by the time she comes back to earth,  has to sift through 400 e-mails to unearth the juicy PJ stuff to share. So I beg your pardon for my posting delays.  To get back in the fray, let me start with a lovely batch of reviews of our band live in Chicago August 23-24, 2009.

Lumino Magazine, reviewed by Chris Castaneda   On their second and final night at the United Center, Pearl Jam achieved what has become a staple of their live performances of the past 18 years – total domination. Over the course of 28 songs, the champions of Seattle pulled no punches in front of another sold-out audience. In his “Troop 365” Boy Scout shirt, Eddie Vedder could almost pass for a scoutmaster, up until the point he began to consume his favorite bottle of wine and lecture on the intricate genius of The Who’s Quadropehnia. “Here we go! We got all night,” said Vedder after the band opened with the rarely performed “Hard To Imagine” (an outtake from Vs.) before firing off a salvo of ear crushing tunes (“In My Tree,” “Last Exit”). The first 15 minutes of the night saw the band crunch, leap, stomp, swerve and sweat at such a breakneck pace that there was very little room to catch a breath. As if sensing the crowd had on its mind, “Why did it have to be a Monday night show?” Vedder pulled the classic performer cliché of praising the previous night’s crowd and laying the challenge to raise the bar even higher. Naturally, the crowd bought the sales pitch.

Concentrating primarily on the pre-2000 era of the band’s catalog, the sextet delivered song after song with full out fury. Although they have grown into a force with unquestionable musical skills, Pearl Jam has slowly become a contradiction of themselves that probably most fans wouldn’t contend against. The element of surprise seems to have been traded for the comfort zone…predictability. As the band blazed through “Even Flow”—with the usual spotlight portion for guitarist Mike McCready—the song became almost a parody more befitting for the likes of Poison or Mötley Crüe. And even though Pearl Jam’s ninth album, Backspacer, is sitting in the wings waiting for its late September release, new songs like “The Fixer” and “Got Some” left very little resonance after the final note.

That said—Pearl Jam showed no mercy when it came to reaching back in the catalog for such songs as “Porch” and “Whipping” (for which Vedder donned a Les Paul fashioned as a model Pete Townshend commonly used with The Who). Before the No Code gem “Present Tense,” Vedder gave a warm dedication to opening act Bad Religion who had not opened for Pearl Jam since its show at Soldier Field in 1995.

As the stadium house lights were brought back up, the pulsating muddy groves of Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up” succumbed to the gentle blues of “Yellow Ledbetter.” No longer disguised in the darkness or flickering of stage lights, the sea of fans that had kept pace with the band for over 2 ½ hours expressed their thanks one more time in clear view. For just another night, Chicago belonged to Pearl Jam.

Charles Peelle, Indianapolis Pop Culture Examiner  (he of the much discussed and admirable Pearl Jam Song Ranking) Chicago – Night One  Having attended my favorite Pearl Jam shows in Philadelphia (Camden, to be exact) and at Madison Square Garden in New York City last year, I expected the two Chicago outings to be the normal, great offering that our boys deliver every single time, but I never thought that these two shows would outdo all the rest. They did. Between the city of Chicago, the outstanding setlists, the spirit and energy of the crowds and the band being at the top of their game, Chicago I and II of 2009 will go down in my book as two of my all time favorite classic concerts, with Night II thus far ranking as the best show I have ever seen live, by any band.

I entered Night 1 with somewhat of a low level of excitement and energy due to camping in the rain the night before, getting stuck in traffic coming into Chicago from Indiana and parking in a shady area to save a few bucks. My heart still skipped beats when I thought about what was to come, but I was largely just obsessing about my car and feeling exhausted. Bad Religion was mildly entertaining, as I was familiar with such songs as their opener, “21st Century (Digital Boy),” “Infected” and “Sorrow.” The band can play, and performed a tight set, but I noticed they repeated the same set and most of their remarks to the audience on both nights. Singer Greg Graffin has a wonderful voice that has aged well, but his live presentation came across almost like a lounge singer, his gesturing arms and swaying body showing off every bit of his 44 years. The band was decent, but I would take Kings of Leon or My Morning Jacket as an opener for Pearl Jam any day over Bad Religion.

Then, the wait began. The seat Ryan gave me for Night 1 was pretty stellar, being in the 100′s and having a straight shot at the stage. The only downfall was that I was alone. That would be a downfall no more once the mighty Pearl Jam would take the stage. About 35 minutes after Bad Religion left the stage the piano intro began and the crowd suddenly snapped awake, a dormant creature now stirring and becoming wild with anticipation.

The lights dropped out and the United Center swarmed around me, my stomach churning, heart thumping and body full of anxious adrenaline. At that moment it felt as though the last time I had seen the band was not a mere 14 months before, but rather eons. Flashes snapped from cameras in all directions and the volume of the arena was huge and intense. Our boys strolled onto the stage, Mike McCready waving, his normal little kid demeanor following him along. Matt Cameron took to his drum set in his normal fashion, standing behind his instrument with a hand held high in the air, greeting the first United States show of the year with fervor and glee. Eddie Vedder grabbed a guitar and walked up to the mic beneath the deep blue light that accompanies all of Pearl Jam’s soft and slow-building openers. The entire audience seemed to draw in our breaths at that moment, holding them in as we waited to see how the show would begin. Vedder went against usual tradition and spoke before the music began, saying, “We have a lot of emotion to get through tonight.” We cheered wildly, understanding the emotional intensity intrinsic in each and every PJ show, before Vedder strummed the first notes of the show, a D chord that indicated we were going to begin our Chicago adventure to the tune of “Long Road.”

The band sounded good from the very start, and while “Long Road” is a great opener, I had not heard it live since my very first Pearl Jam show, Noblesville, Indiana, June 22nd, 2003, so it was quite a joy to hear live again. Although it is not a song that the casual fan will usually recognize, the crowd responded well, if not singing along with it, then definitely getting into it. “Corduroy” might be the greatest second concert song ever and I certainly believe it to be Pearl Jam’s finest. The band went right into it as “Long Road” closed and the United Center exploded into ecstatic life. It became immediately apparent during the track that the band is in fine form, and the audience followed. The clapping and jumping during “Corduroy” are intoxicating, and the high continued as the band went through stage one of the show in usual style, hitting the up-tempo rockers out of the park, such as “Why Go” and my first experience of Binaural’s “Gods’ Dice,” then bringing it down just a bit for the chugging “Dissident.” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” gave us a beautiful first set break, and while we all know it is coming, there is something undeniably special about the entire crowd sing along of “I’m not my former!” and “I just wanna scream, ‘Hellooooohhhh!’” It simply never gets old. I was especially excited after “Small Town” died down when the band gave way to “Sad,” a song I have longed to hear live from the band for a while. “The Fixer” popped up after that, the live version with full crowd participation in the “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain superior to the studio rendition. Like “Small Town,” “Given to Fly” never fails and is always a huge one to get the audience riled up, Jammers (yes, I used that word) bouncing up and down in every direction and singing those choruses with all their might.

The emotion that Ed referred to upon first hitting the stage became more apparent as Jeff Ament took the mic and explained that an old friend that always saw Pearl Jam in Chicago was not able to attend tonight and requesting that we sing “Happy Birthday” to him. They followed it up with a gracious version of “Come Back,” a song all about losing a loved one and it seemed that Jeff and his band had lost someone from the Chicago area that was very dear to them. It is wonderful and heartbreaking that this band wears its heart on its sleeve with such determination. Things like this allow the average schmo, i.e. you and I, to connect with them every time. “Even Flow” stormed through the sadness with its usual machismo and power, Mike doing his thing with a fierce tenacity. The rest of the first set was blazing and beautiful as the band made its way through “Save You,” “In Hiding,” “Man of the Hour” (likely another nod to Jeff’s friend, the song had not been played since the wonder show of Hawaii, 2006), my first live “Insignificance” (my God), Backspacer’s “Got Some” and the first set closer, a crazed “Spin the Black Circle.” During the latter I took off my sweat-drenched 2008 tour shirt (with the ’06 D.C. poster image on the front) and spun it around and over my head every time Eddie sang, “Spin! Spin!”

The encore break hit and one of the guys behind me said to me, “Dude, you can sit down and take a break. You definitely deserve one!” One of his friends remarked, “They should have you up in the front with your kind of energy. Wow!” What can I say? This band does something insane and magical to me. I refused to sit down, kept cheering and clapping and our boys walked back on stage.

Eddie introduced keyboardist Boom Gaspar and he hit those gorgeous notes that indicated “Love Reign O’er Me” was commencing. I heard the song at last year’s Madison Square Night One show, but this version took it to newer heights. “Life Wasted” followed with audience celebration and then Ament’s bass took over for another track from The Who’s Quadrophenia album, “The Real Me.” My first time hearing this one live, it was a damn monster, inducing lots of dancing and joy. “Alive” closed the first encore appropriately, the casual fans making a lot more noise and the whole place rocking for the fist-pumping guitar solo and outro.

 

For the beginning of the second encore, Eddie walked out alone and gave a little speech about Michael Jackson, discussing the sadness some have felt since his death, then noting, “although it feels like we lost him a long time ago,” before playing a sorrowful version of Neil Young’s lament for the lost drug addict, “The Needle and the Damage Done.” The rest of the band joined Vedder on stage as he quietly played the opening melody of Michael Jackson’s “Ben,” before Ament and Cameron launched the classic funk of Vs.’s “Rats.” I am not sure if people caught the connection between all three or did not recognize the song Eddie was playing because the audience did not react to “Ben.” I am sure most of my readers are aware, but just in case anyone is not, the coda to “Rats” contains a refrain from the Michael Jackson song. Another new song from Backspacer, “Supersonic,” then appeared, sounding like a mix between Pearl Jam’s own “All Night,” the Ramones and The Clash. Like “Long Road,” I had not heard “Smile” live since my first Pearl Jam show, so it was a surprise and a pleasure to get it in the second encore. “Smile” cannot help but induce positive emotions, so it was another uplifting treat from the band. “Rearviewmirror” arrived next like a tornado, the band ripping through it, slowing down only to perform its now absolutely perfect extended jam breakdown. “Yellow Ledbetter” closed the evening out and I launched into my fast-paced walk from the arena to return to my car, all safe and sound in its spot.

Night 2, same reviewer:  Pearl Jam took the stage about three or four minutes earlier than on Night 1, certainly a good sign of things to come. The piano intro played, the lights went out and once again, all the external factors were suddenly irrelevant. The band opened Night 2 with the best version of “Hard to Imagine” I have heard out of the three times I have seen it live. Something about the Chicago crowd, Vedder’s voice, etc. made it feel like a special show from the very start. “Corduroy” followed once again as the second track of the set, and from the 300 section I could see the entire venue and the song was somehow even more glorious than the first night. The first big surprise of the night arrived next, in the form of “In My Tree,” from 1996′s No Code. The song is a rarely played gem (previous time played prior to Monday night – 9/1/06), and the original version to my knowledge had not been played since the 2000 tour. This was my 11th show and I had been wishing, hoping and waiting for the song since my very first one. Much like “Sad” and “Insignificance” from Night 1, “In My Tree” was a track that had just escaped my Pearl Jam experiences, the band playing it in sets just before and just after shows I have attended. Well here it was. Somehow, my 300 section seat seemed more appropriate for the song than if I had been down closer to the floor. There are very few moments that match the intimacy of Ed’s “I wave to all my friends!” line.

A typically rousing version of “Last Exit” came next, which felt like quite a gift considering the song has not been played on a regular basis since the 2006 tour. “All Night” premiered in live form just last year and the band ran through it like a steam train, capping off the opening round of hard-hitters. Another big surprise in “Nothingman” slowed the evening down next, the band yet again delivering a song that has been largely absent from setlists for the past few years. As it ended, I turned to my girlfriend and asked, “Have you ever heard an arena sing together like that?” She smiled and shook her head. “The Fixer” made its return appearance, still fun and engaging for the crowd, followed by “Even Flow,” Night 2′s version featuring the drumming theatrics of Mr. Matt Cameron. Eddie remarked after the song that, “Mike McCready has to play that song or he’ll f**king kick someone!” (I think he said KILL someone-Kath)  He noted that a guy in the front was wearing a shirt that read, “No Even Flow,” laughing and retorting, “We take requests, not demands.” (“Requests not orders” -Kath) Perfect.

The rest of the first set is a marvel to behold. I am not sure I have ever witnessed a string of songs played in such a fashion at any show. “Present Tense” began the run, beginning slowly and building gradually before exploding into a fireball of strobe light madness. The band plunged into “Whipping” insanely, seamlessly melding its ending into the opening drums of “Not For You,” a Vitalogy one-two punch. The Sleater-Kinney “Modern Girl” tag at the end of “NFY” is a wonder to hear live, especially when landing at the base of an eight-minute monster medley. “Daughter” made an appearance next, Eddie tagging it with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II.” It was special to be at the first U.S. show at which “Brother” was played since its one live play in Los Angeles in February of 1991, and likely in a very different incarnation. Night 1 and thus far Night 2 had blown me away so much by this point that I had not even thought about the song and how it had been played at four shows on this tour, so when it popped up it was yet another great surprise. “Gone,” “Got Some,” “Do the Evolution” and “Alive” closed the first set, “Evolution” always a highlight, especially with its patented light-up-the-crowd “Hallelujah” bridge. I enjoyed the placement of “Alive” at the end of the first set, a change of pace from the previous night and the average setlist.

Going into the first encore, only five songs had been repeated from the previous night, “Corduroy,” “Even Flow” and “Alive” being signature songs for the band, and “The Fixer” and “Got Some” being brand new tracks the group is road testing. Vedder came out and introduced Thomas Young’s family, including his brothers and mother. For those who do not know, Ed’s song “No More” was inspired by Young, an Iraq War veteran who will be spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair due to the action he saw over there. Ed’s introduction was an emotional moment, remarking to Young’s youngest brother, who looked about 10 or 11 years old that “hopefully you won’t have to go to war like your brothers.” He added that, “If a soldier asks you to play this song, you f**king” play it,” before launching into “No More.” Afterward, Eddie joked and said, “Sorry for saying “f**k,” to Young’s younger brother. The band proceeded to rip through the powerhouses of “Comatose” and “Grievance,” barely pausing for breath. The number one song from my Pearl Jam countdown came next in the form of “Black.” I really cannot explain what this track does to me, let alone live in the middle of a show, but feel free to read my article about it to grasp my feelings toward it. The Who’s “The Real Me” made a reprise from Night 1, this time motivating Mike McCready to do laps around the stage throughout the duration of the song. “Porch,” being the live destroyer that it is, closed the first encore aptly, the climax causing me to wonder if there is anything this band cannot do, and how the boys would top themselves after all that.

The second encore did not disappoint. Eddie came out and gave a tear jerking speech about Chicago and the beauty about one of his hometowns, the audience and the whole experience. No one knows how to create intimacy among nearly 20,000 people like Eddie Vedder. His speech segued into “Wasted Reprise,” during which I somewhat lost it and shed a few tears myself. The short track went right into “Better Man,” entire crowd sing along and all. The “Save it for Later” tag has always been a favorite, but somehow the way Ed conducted it Monday night made it even better, the entire United Center rocking along and outsinging the man himself. “Crazy Mary” featured an extended Boom Gaspar organ solo, but no duel with Mike McCready’s normal electric lead. It felt as though the band would not stop at this point. The last thing I was about to do was check the time, but I could definitely tell that it was after 11 p.m. by the time “Better Man” ended. I knew Night 1 had only gone for about two hours and 15 minutes, ending around 11:05. Night 2 would be no such match. The boys tore into “State of Love and Trust,” its usual nastiness fully intact and shredding the audience. Ed then lied and stated, “This will be our last song,” before the band romped its way through Neil Young’s “F**kin’ Up” with the house lights on. He dedicated the song to #91, i.e. Chicago Bulls legendary rebounder and defender Dennis Rodman. The song is a great jam for the band, as they draw it into a long, demented hard rock stampede, Crazy Horse style. Eddie bashed his way through his tambourines (as usual) and gave them away to the front row. As he reached back from the audience, he proceeded to tie his hair back, then donned a hilarious blonde wig, dancing maniacally through the rest of the song. Like I said to my girlfriend: “You never know what’s going to happen at any given Pearl Jam show.” The lights stayed on but the band refused to leave the stage, gentle lying us back down with the classic sing along of “Yellow Ledbetter,” including Mike McCready’s rip-off of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to close the show. As the six men bowed and walked off the stage, I wished there was some way we could keep them there. As usual, I did not want it all to end.

Grand Rapids Press -reviewed by Troy Reimink  If anything, Pearl Jam’s two-night stand at Chicago’s United Center made a convincing argument for the use of alcohol as a performance-enhancing drug.

By perhaps the fifth song into its first show Sunday, Eddie Vedder had finished his first bottle of red wine. He cracked another and spent the rest of the show sharing with fans in the front row. At one point, he accidentally spit into the crowd and apologized mid-song without breaking stride. Dude was crocked.  But know what? He and the rest of the band sounded great. Relentlessly, almost fearsomely great. Vedder might have flubbed a few words, but he didn’t miss a note.

The band, despite one to many Who covers and somewhat flabby versions of hits like “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter,” was fast and sharp, like a group of much younger musicians with a lot more to prove than was actually necessary. Opener “Long Road”? Best I’ve ever heard it sound. Vedder’s roar at the climax of “Rearviewmirror”? Terrifying as ever. Well-received new song “The Fixer”? Already sounds like a Pearl Jam classic:

Much has been written about Pearl Jam’s bewildering, perhaps unprecedented evolution from uncomfortable mainstream sensation to commercial outcast to small cult attraction to massive cult phenomenon. It says something interesting about both band and audience when the biggest hits are the best times to visit the bathroom or get more booze. For that and a dozen other reasons, Pearl Jam is without peer.

Also, the group still behaves more like a club band than an arena rock act. Case in point is the understated stage presentation on this tour, which consists of multiple nights in a few large cities — bare stage, simple backdrop, understated lighting, not a single frill to speak of. If your mind was blown by anything, it was the music, even though the crowd at the second night got a slightly better set list (i.e., more obscurities, more “No Code”).

Night 1 Poster/Happy Birthday/Come Back: 

 

The poster for the August 23rd Chicago show is designed by Jeff Ament in tribute to his longtime friend, Dr. Mike Richter, who was tragically struck and killed on April 18th, 2009 when walking his beloved dog Gymmie near his Milwaukee-area home.  Though this is a very personal matter for Jeff, Dr. Richter’s family and friends, we respectfully submit some biographical information on Mike in order to illuminate the poster depiction and reference to him during the Chicago show.  It seems Ed’s opening comments, “We’ve got a lot of emotion to get through tonight” may have referred to Richter’s many family and friends in attendance at the show.  Prior to Jeff leading the crowd in “Happy Birthday”, he explained that this was “the first time Mike hasn’t been able to make it to a show, and it’s his birthday…” 

The united United Center sang beautifully, and the tribute blended in to a lovely performance of the mournful “Come Back”. An excerpt from Mike’s memorial biography:

Mike was born and raised in Havre, Montana. He graduated from Big Sandy High School and the College of Great Falls in Montana. He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin and finished his residency at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee. He cherished his staff and the 13 years he spent as a family physician at the Glendale Clinic. For the past two years he was a family practice physician at Aurora Health Care where he was fortunate enough to be assisted by Rachelle. Mike was a dedicated doctor who loved his work and had a deep compassion for his patients who will remember his warm, kind, and gentle presence. His charm combined with his keen medical sense made him a favorite doctor. Mike was passionate about his family and his friends. He will be forever remembered for his bear hugs, his ability to appreciate a good meal, and for placing the needs of others above his own. He had a hearty laugh, and his 6’5′ stature made him larger than life. Basketball was another love – he played for the College of Great Falls, Montana, he coached both of his daughters at St. Monica Catholic Grade School in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin and was Assistant Varsity Coach at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When not doting on his wife and daughters, Mike loved a good game of golf, great music, or pick-up basketball with his cherished friends.

Chicago

Chicago Tribune – Greg Kot   

photo by Anthony Robert La Penna

photo by Anthony Robert La Penna

Eddie Vedder has a way of telescoping even sprawling stadium shows into intimate moments. At Pearl Jam’s sold-out concert Sunday at the United Center, Vedder opened the second encore alone on stage with a guitar and a story.

    He related how as a 6-year-old growing up in suburban Evanston he would listen to his older siblings play records in the basement. One band in particular fascinated him – the Jackson 5. “The lead singer was only three or four years older than me,” he said, and then delivered a haunting, finger-picked version of Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” in tribute to the late Michael Jackson.

    In a career-spanning 27-song, 2 ½-hour set, Vedder took fans from his childhood to the future, introducing three songs from the band’s forthcoming studio album, “Backspacer.” The album opens a new chapter in Pearl Jam’s career, its first independent release at a time when the music industry is racked by economic woes.

    Perhaps for that reason the band played like something more was at stake than just another sold-out concert in a career full of them. In the past, there were times when Pearl Jam’s arena-rock obsessions got the best of it; long solos and flabby improvisation aren’t the band’s strong suit. At the United Center, the Seattle quintet sprinkled its set with references to Led Zeppelin (the guitar riffs in “Given to Fly” and “In Hiding”) and The Who (overwrought covers of not one but two songs from Vedder’s sacred text, “Quadrophenia”).

    But these moments were tips of the hat to the setting, a chance for the audience to sing along. The bulk of the concert was devoted to terse, tactile assaults built on a bed of as many as three rhythm guitars. After the moody invitation to explore, “Long Road,” the tone was set emphatically by “Corduroy,” “Why Go” and the tangled guitars of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready on “God’s Dice.”

    Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament frequently huddled in front of Matt Cameron’s drum riser, as if to ensure that the rhythm would stay hard, fast and sure. Vedder punctuated the attack with leaping spins, his right hand a blur as he pummeled his guitar. His rafter-climbing days may be over, but he didn’t so much sing the songs as detonate them. The new material fit the evening’s urgent mode.

    Pearl Jam’s earliest songs were embittered confessions, informed by confusion and anger. Their latest are declarations of resolve. As Vedder sang in “The Fixer,” “When something’s gone, I wanna fight to get it back again.” Sunday night was the sound of Pearl Jam getting back in the ring.    

Antimusic.com – Anthony Kuzminski  Chicago August 23, 2009 – Pearl Jam hit the windy city in all their glory Sunday night for what was originally supposed to be one of a handful of US appearances that has now evolved into a larger scope tour in support of their newest record Backspacer. The last time Pearl Jam played here, it was the headline spot on Lollapalooza in 2007. This time they brought their no-holds barred show indoors to the United Center (although it appears the band was attempting to have these shows at Alpine Valley). For over two hours, the band ripped through a muscular twenty-seven song set that left the heavy-in-attendance Ten Club (Pearl Jam’s fan club) crowd in pure ecstasy.

Opening with “Long Road” from 1995 (done for the Merkin Ball/ Mirror Ball project with Neil Young was especially poignant and featured Vedder capturing magic inside of an arena. From the first goose bump inducing notes to the final note of Mike McCready’s “Star Spangled Banner” coda to “Yellow Ledbetter” the band hit all the right emotional notes for the fan club intensive crowd. However, it doesn’t mean the evening was not without some pacing issues.

The show featured confounding highs; a deafening “Corduroy”, the raging “God’s Dice”, the melancholy “Small Town”, the spiritually soaring “Given To Fly and a longing “Dissident” where Vedder’s vocals proved to be as incandescent as they ever have. “Come Back” featured the band evoking Motown soul in the 2006 track in a way to oozed, drained and dripped soul. “Rearviewmirror” was received with a tidal wave of rejuvenation as the arena shook while “Smile” (which featured Gossard and Ament switching instruments) was pining and passive. During a particularly concentrated performance of “Insignificance” it became evident what a tight knit group of musicians they are. When they hit the stage, they have the sway and the leeway to pull anything out from their back pocket and convey it in a performance that most acts would fall on their face doing. “Sad” reverberated with the crowd on this lost track from Lost Dogs. “Man of the Hour” was tender while a pair of Who covers lifted the roof; “Love, Reign o’er Me” and “The Real Me”. Artists will often rely on covers for a money shot of sorts, but not Pearl Jam. You can tell when an artist is performing a song for a reaction or trying to emulate its inner soul. Pearl Jam does the latter. Vedder spoke of listening to Quadrophenia while waiting for the train to take him home to Evanston as a youth. The whole evening was sprinkled with cool stories and anecdotes from Vedder about his childhood and hometown adding to the intimacy. The second encore opened with Vedder performing a stunning rendition of the Neil Young song “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a fresh cover which found Vedder talking about Michael Jackson and listening to him in Evanston.

The new songs had mixed results. The lead single, “The Fixer” has a stadium ready chorus with a trifecta of yelping “yeah’s” in the chorus while “Got Some” and “Supersonic” were played well, but are lacking the emotional connection from the crowd. This should be alleviated once the album is released. The evening found the band is high spirits and it reflected in their performance. Drummer Matt Cameron pounded the drums like a prize fighter while bassist Jeff Ament complimented Cameron with his four finger finesse as Stone Gossard laid down the guitar grooves cementing the foundation of Pearl Jam which has never been stronger or more melodious. Guitarist Mike McCready flexed his six-string prowess with stinging solos and occasionally stealing the spotlight from Eddie Vedder. While the show was full of illustrious highs, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something lacking. While the band played their hearts out and the crowd ate up every last serving, I had the overriding sense that I had seen this show before. Almost as if the band is too comfortable with the non-structure formula of their show. Pearl Jam is a band that is our generation’s Grateful Dead; no two shows are alike and their fanatical fans can fill arenas alone. Pearl Jam plays their concerts like a chess game. They carefully make their moves with a free style set list while the audience makes their moves in emotive reactions. Much like the Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam play to their core fans which is beyond admirable and I walk away wanting to do a deeper dive into their catalog. I can’t tell you the last time I listened to “Sad”, but it will now be in full rotation on my iPod. That being said, I’d like to see them branch out, try to weave themes, arcs and structures into a cohesive set list that would still allow for golden nuggets to be aired nightly. What I witnessed was powerful, but felt like listening to Pearl Jam on shuffle, which isn’t bad at all, but it lacks direction and the emotional wallop their shows usually provide was missing as a result.

Time Out Chicago - Dan Hyman  With the stadium lights still dimly hovering above the crowd, the echo of a piano reverberated around the arena, now packed with restless fans. The lights dropped, the stadium erupted and one of the most influential bands of the ’90s sauntered onstage.

It was a homecoming for Evanston-native Vedder, who made several mentions throughout the evening to his childhood in Chicago. “Why go home?,” Vedder implored. “I am home.” Without hesitation, the band gracefully crept its way into “Long Road,” a fitting opening tune for an alternative powerhouse that has paved a long trail toward worldwide acclaim since 1991’s surprise spectacular debut Ten—a level of sustained stardom few bands will likely experience in today’s age of “What can you do for me now?”

From the get-go one thing was clear: Pearl Jam delivers a non-stop rock assault in concert. Some bands layer on the theatrics so thick you’d think they were dressed in drag. Others play the waiting game in between tunes. Not Pearl Jam. From the moment the first tune finished, you could barely count to twenty before the next melody ripped out your heart. “Corduroy,” with its pounding bass line and crashing cymbals led to the instantly recognizable drum intro to Ten’s “Why Go,” from drummer Matt Cameron, before the band got a bit thrashy with “God’s Dice” off 2000’s Binaural.

Some people swear that Ten is Pearl Jam’s best album, never to be topped. I for one, have always stuck to my guns believing that Vs. is the band’s golden ticket. So needless to say, as lead guitarist Mike McCready effortlessly tossed around the intro to “Dissident,” with his wailing guitar lines complementing Vedder’s throaty vocals, the smile could not be wiped off my face.

“This next one goes out to Schaumburg. And Naperville. And Elgin. And Skokie,” Vedder muttered in his characteristic drunken-sounding babble. “Small Town,” a song that is nearly impossible not to like, with its sing-along melodies and sweeping refrains, ensued with the entire arena’s collective gaze directed toward the scraggly front man, wearing his classic rough and tumble attire of a black T-shirt and cargo shorts. New tunes off the yet-to be released Backspacer, such as “The Fixer” and “Got Some,”  as well as the punky “Supersonic” in the encore were sharp and pointed, while classics like “Given to Fly” and “Evenflow” sizzled with swagger. Vedder made it a point to mention, before GTF that “this song was supposed to be played outdoors under a Midwestern sky at a little venue some of you may know called Alpine Valley. Unfortunately for whatever reason that didn’t happen, but we’re gonna play it anyway so just imagine you’re outside.”

Jettisoning offstage after closing the set with a helicopter-rendition of “Spin the Black Circle,” which saw McCready and bassist Jeff Ament rolling on the ground as they shred in unison, the band reunited onstage moments later with touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar for arena-shaking covers of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” and “The Real Me.” “Thank you Pete Townshend,” Vedder said, after tearing through enthused versions that may have made Pete jealous, or maybe just flattered.

A turbulent “Alive” closed out the first encore, with McCready playing an extended solo behind his head. Vedder returned to the stage alone for the second encore to play an eerily beautiful cover of Neil Young’s “The Needle and The Damage Done,” which he dedicated to the fallen Michael Jackson. “He may be gone now, but I feel like we lost him some time ago,” Vedder explained before starting the tune.

The perennial alt-rockers closed out their Sunday night soiree with “Rats,” and “Rearviewmirror,” Vs. favorites, as well as “Smile,” which saw rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard and Ament swapping roles as Vedder trilled away on the harmonica with fluidity and swag. The lights went on and Vedder paid the crowd his appreciation with a soulful rendition of “Yellow Ledbetter,” culminating in McCready doing his best Hendrix impersonation with a reverb-laced rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

As McCready singed the hairs off the collective neck of the audience, Vedder sat front and center staring down his bandmate with awe. Still a kid at heart, with energy and passion for his craft, Vedder, even in all his rock glory, can appreciate what his band is capable of. While not a diehard Pearl Jam fan before Sundays show, at that final moment of the show, I could finally relate to Vedder—for I had been an awestruck observer throughout the night as well—sitting in my seat eyeing down the band that helped define alt-rock.

As I started to walk out of the venue, spent from the evening, Bob leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Now you can say you’ve seen the best rock band in the world, buddy.” I knew that Bob was clearly biased, but yet I couldn’t help taking what he said to heart. Pearl Jam may not be the best rock band to ever grace a stage, but based on Sunday’s performance, it sure as hell comes close.   

watching Mike - photo by Flickr user Ahn

watching Mike - photo by Flickr user Ahn

Kathy Davis ( Twitter: @CrookedArm23 )
A Bay-Area based entrepreneur, co-editor Kathy conceives and writes her share of TFT’s articles and sections. She was co-editor/co-founder of one of the first Pearl Jam fanzines "Footsteps" (1992-1997). Kathy’s first Pearl Jam show was at the Bridge School Benefit on November 1, 1992.

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