21 hours. That’s about all the time there was to prepare for Pearl Jam’s second Madison Square Garden show on May 21. It was awesome and cruel at the same time. The previous eve’s show was a piercing arrow, who’s ultimate target was Friday. Being the only two-night stand of the tour – and the tour closer – everyone had to just fucking bring it: band, fans, Garden spirits … everyone. And it all came together … wow, did it come together!
“We got some work to do”
“We got some work to do”, Ed said as the night started. “Corduroy” -> “Hail, Hail” -> “Do The Evolution” was a three-song punch in the face from three consecutive monster albums of the ’90s. Rolling hills = flattened out.
Skipping Riot Act in the sequence (and the whole night actually), “World Wide Suicide” -> “Got Some” completed the circle. Five nuclear bombs from five different albums that aren’t Ten. To all the press and wagon jumpers who keep saying the same fucking thing over and over and over that Pearl Jam haven’t written anything meaningful since Vs, that argument is dead. The fans got some for sure, and it was just a drop in the bucket.
For the understatement of the night, Ed says they’re going to “step it down” for a moment, leading to “Breath”. Step it down? How in the world is that stepping it down? The crowd went nuts for this song which has a special fondness in New York City since 1998′s “Breath Campaign” rebirth.
Ed takes a quick roll call of everyone’s education history: Jeff, one year of college … Matt went to Kinkos. Ed asks Stone who holds up one finger and Ed jokes “one day?”. Ed admits he only got to junior year of High School but asks “what’s the point?” and tells the crowd to just look around as the night’s first house lights reveal thousands of standing, screaming fans. Jokingly he implores “Don’t smoke pot and listen to your parents always”.
“Nothingman” is the real step down, but the crowd brings it up with huge vocals. “Nothingman” is a slow burn but tonight’s performance was extra slow and deliberate, each note by everyone played with focus.
Ed spoke fondly again of Howard Zinn – “I didn’t show shit until I listened to people like Howard Zinn” – which instantly made us think were were getting “Undone” because “Down” had appeared the previous night. “I’m Open” was a fitting choice, and a first since last Halloween. “I’m Open” into “Unthought Known” was a mind-bending combo that worked really well.
Pummel, pause, reflect. This was MSG2′s ebb and flow and the crowd was right there with them. “Grievance” from 2000′s Binaural was a fist-pumping party, with the floor to the rafters pledging they wouldn’t “give blood and take it back again”.
Dipping into personal opinion for a second, I wasn’t sure “Amongst The Waves” was working well live from my listens to 2009′s bootlegs. But wow … WOW! This song is a multi-faceted, rhythmic beast live. There are many songs in Pearl Jam’s repertoire where each member is adding their own color to the song and it comes together like fine painting. I found myself dancing and jumping to different drum rhythms and switching air guitar between Stone and Mike, and each part alone seemed like a look at the song from a different angle each time. Splendid!
Mike’s Flying V – now decorated all over with what seem like stickers (did he leave it unattended in his kids’ playroom?) – is the signal for “Present Tense” and the song culminates in a super-agressive sonic finale with each member driving home home on the same note and beat, in stark comparison to the last song but equally pleasing.
“Not For You” takes me back in my mind to 1994 and seeing the band debut it on Saturday Night Live. A day later I was sad and ticketless as Pearl Jam ended their tour that year in the Paramount Theater, that is, MSG’s basement. It’s funny how the song’s tone goes from angry, playful, angry since Ed started improvising with the song’s second verse. “Small my table, seats just four”. Where did they come from? I keep waiting for a nice rhyme of “room” and “womb”, but maybe it’s just me. Give me credit if you ever use that, Ed? OK? I’m just sayin…
“Push Me, Pull Me” is just … uh … it’s a … geez! There’s no way to describe this song live without just repeating the title! It starts so abruptly and just makes you jiggle like a plate of green jello. As Jess mentioned, the bass breakdown causes your body to instantly watusi as if you’re a marionette attached to the strings of Jeff’s bass guitar. Jess and I – just four seats apart, 3rd row, Stone’s side – catch a glance as we among many are “discarding alllll thought”.
“Rats” is next, and suddenly I realize my unintentionally associated Mickey Rat shirt is now somewhat apropos (see setlist, “Rats” was a late substitute for “Outta My Mind”). “Daughter” gets a great response and Ed catches a hand-made sign that says “WMA” leading Ed to tag verse/chorus with the recently adjusted “White Male Arizonian”. Following, Ed hesitates to say he wants to get into “more politics”, but warns the crowd that “they have to keep an eye out. They’re taking ethnic studies out of school (in Arizona), do you know their taking ethnic studies out of their classrooms? You can’t do much up here, except lead by example. (Arizona) needs to be fixed” … and “yeah, yeah, yeah”, it’s “The Fixer”.
“Why Go” signals the end of the first set, and its double meaning as the show’s and tour’s milestone, is clear to all. Still bringing it, the whole band is rockin’ and jumpin’ and the crowd is jumpin’ and rockin’ with the same energy as if it was the opener.
With the string section arriving and solely illuminated, Ed and Boom start the somber “The End”, a song Ed thankfully says is “not autobiographical”. The rest of the band come on stage – Jeff sporting a “Big Sandy Against The World” t-shirt. “Just Breathe” again reminds all those lucky to be in the building (tickets were being scalped for as much as $1000 outside the venue) of the flexibility of Pearl Jam’s song arsenal.
Ricky Ramone then comes up with a music stand. Such a mundane gesture to some, but to Pearl Jam fans, it’s the signal to something special. Ed jokes about the expression “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” by wondering “who the fuck is out there skinning cats?”.
With the string section still on stage, Ed starts strumming a Emaj7 and starts singing … “Lukin”! Although this was the same 3-song encore start as the previous night, this version could not have been any different. With the slow delivery, airy guitar tone, and fully complimentary strings, “Lukin” almost resembled … a real song (no offense!). At nearly three minutes long, this version – dubbed “Lukin II” on the setlist – made this great night unique, with my seat-mate Bill adding “that version alone is gonna sell a lot of bootlegs.”
Ok, back to normalcy … NO! BLACK, RED, YELLOW!! Hardcores unite! Fans speak, the band listens, and after a grassroots 2010 fan campaign, remarkably – almost incomprehensibly – perform a song that was actually absent during the historic 4-show catalog-bursting Spectrum run, and first since 2005.
Back to the hits … NO! SWEET LEW! Jeff jumps on stage donning a No. 19 blue New York Knicks Willis Reed jersey and says half to the crowd, half to his mates “I thought this was a one time, one time only” after it’s Philly 2009 debut. Ed and Stone both play bass guitars, and Ed plays the basketball on Stone’s side. We should have been tipped off much sooner to “Sweet Lew”, as the ball was perched beneath Boom’s organ since the beginning of the show.
Synergies again … five-song ascending-album rockers to start, then three songs to with Strings, and now two basketball-themed songs in a row. Closing the first set, Pearl Jam rocks backwards in time, first with 1998′s “Given To Fly”, followed by 1994′s “Spin The Black Circle” and 1993′s “Rearviewmirror”. RVM’s “tag” is the common “I will forget / I will forgive”.
Second encore begins with Boom’s serene “Wasted Reprise” and genuinely accompanies Ed thanking the crowd and how this tour and this show has been such a great experience and “sent a very positive message to us”. He tells a story of his first trip to New York City and how he walked by a glass store window and saw his reflection in front of him with the city skyline in the background. Now, it’s twenty years later and “thank you, I’m just very grateful”.
Starting “Better Man”, the weight of the moment was clear as Ed let the crowd sing after barely getting out the “ing” in “Waiting…”. He let us finish that first verse and the chorus, pausing for about 25s (what seemed like an eternity), snapping in approval, smiling ear to ear, wiping away tears and looking all around at us doing the same. A long “ohhhhh” brought the song back in, with Stone and Jeff rocking especially hard, and Mike on backing vocals.
The timeless “Black” was not left out of the two-night stand followed by the MSG debut of The Who’s “The Real Me”.
End now … show us mercy! Play “Yellow Ledbetter” and leave, we’ll be fine. Tour closers always have a lot of hype and this gig has already lived up to it. As “Band of Horses” is milling about sidestage, you assume you’ll get “All Along the Watchtower” and that’ll be it. Ben Bridwell is introduced on stage, gives humble hugs and handshakes to all members sans Ed and here we go.
But the unmistakable deep-toned beginning of “Hunger Strike” starts and the crowd issues an enormous gasp in unison. Holy Crapola! Then it hits you – the perfect “cover”. Can you think of a song that the entire band can play flawlessly, but without the key ingredient – Cornell’s high-frequency singing – the song just can’t be done alone? Bridwell’s selection – like Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker in 2003 and Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale in 2006 – is ideal. Cornell”s … er … Ben’s vocal is first, and early, and he steps right out with a nervous smile but joy bursting from his eyes. He’s a nervous, pacing lead man on stage and the thrill of the moment can’t keep him from standing still. The rest of the band – once pensive on stage – are now side stage and all wide-eyed and smiling at their mates’ effort.
At the song’s close, Ben – like Vedder, not tall in stature – is overcome by the moment and gives his mentor-for-the-tour Ed a big hug with his head on Ed’s chest.
“Alive” is next, with Ed greeting the crowd on both sides and Mike running about three laps around the stage, much to the amusement of the VIP area including (holds breath) Tom Tomorrow, Michael Moore, John McEnroe (2nd night), Patty Smyth, Danny Masterson, Gavin DeGraw, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Matt Damon and NY Jets Quarterback Mark Sanchez.
We’re all spent, the band looks spent and Ed looks at Matt, then Stone, then Jeff and Mike asking “is it time? is it time?”. We all know that Mike finishes “Yellow Ledbetter” with his worn Fender Strat, but he’s got the mustard-yellow double-cutaway guitar on. What could it be?
“It’s time to … KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!”
This show’s gas tank started full, and this long trip was not going to taken without exhausting all the fuel, even the fumes. “Kick Out The Jams” is a 41-year-old song, and made me reflect (if that’s possible, with guitars blazing) on these two shows – the only two – that I attended the past few days. At the Wishlist Pre-Party there were packs of 50-somethings, 40-somethings, 30-somethings and 20-somethings. Fans told me of their first-show experiences as 21-year-olds in 2006 and I recounted my similar experiences in 1992. Much like Hendrix said “I don’t believe in age brackets”, the MC5 cover rocked the socks off young and old in the aptly nicknamed “World’s Most Famous Arena”.
Song 34 of the night is “Yellow Ledbetter” followed by 34-1/2 “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Thank yous and goodbyes are passed from the stage to the crowd from all members of the band. Ed strolls around the front and sides with piles of books, shirts and stuff in the now-familiar pattern of fan gift-giving. The band come out for back-stage and front-stage bows and ends – if you were in the venue early to mingle like me – nearly five hours of Pearl Jam euphoria.
The Neverending Story
There’s no way to end this review because I’m finally out of words. I will, however, keep the review going much the same way we felt during the encores … that it was joyfully never going to end.
So, here are some anecdotes, tidbits and links from MSG:
- Huge props to the Wishlist Foundation for the MSG pre-parties at Irish Times and for raising thousands of dollars throughout the tour that will benefit a number of charities. Laura, Eric (100th show at MSG2!) did a great job the whole tour and were exhausted at the end, but thank you for your efforts and we can’t wait to see the tallies from the tour.
- All fans should be like Andrew Brenner. A Pearl Jam tour veteran, Andrew on Thursday was rocking and jumping and came down wrong on his ankle (on, of all songs, “Breakerfall”) , tearing ligaments. He spent Friday in a New York Hospital and returned Friday in a protective boot. Persistence! Just like your favorite song, Andrew, we “can’t find a better fan”.
- Check out this great review by Matt at Gremmie.net!
- Thanks to Allon for all the videos in this review! The “written” review might soon be a lost art because you can just go on YouTube and see the whole show, but thanks for sharing with us.
- A fan took a picture of what looked like a setlist on Boom’s music stand, turns out to be a hysterical crew joke about fans who clamor for setlists? It’s a little fuzzy below, but says “You don’t get a set list because your ticket does not say “Entertainment and a Souvenir (sic)”. It just says that you get to see the show that should be more than enough. What are you going to do with a lousey (sic) piece of paper anyway?“