Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field: A Summer’s End Rewind

by Jessica Letkemann on September 2, 2013

As summer 2013 closes, my most memorable Pearl Jam moment of the season — the Wrigley Field show — has come into sharper focus with wistful memories that stretch a lot farther back than July 19.

I’ve got a great tour partner who lives on the opposite coast from me — and yes, it’s been pointed out to us that our initials are, coincidentaly, P and J. We met in line at a record store buying “Vitalogy” at midnight and we’ve been seeing PJ shows together since 1995. One of the very first we went to together was the epic show at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 11 of that year.

Having scored a pair of general admission tickets for Wrigley this year, 18 years later, we headed to Chicago prepared for anything, and in some part of us, ready for the idea that we should be prepared that holding the rail in a place that holds over 40,000 people may come at the cost of enjoying the show. We knew, we remembered Soldier Field, and we were no longer as young as we were in 1995. But we were wrong.

Fans around the world know Soldier Field as a legendary show, full of triumph and energy and great covers — long and strong. We remember it as the day we did a lot of things you should never do at a big GA show like that. We braved the 103 degree heat of Chicago in July without sunscreen, without shade, without hydration, without enough food, without nearly enough sleep since the Milwaukee shows beforehand — from before six in the morning until nearly midnight when the almost three-hour show ended. After being seventh in line, I’d managed to get on the front rail in front of Stone and stay there the whole show. But rather than the mega rockout or the emotional sweep, what I remember mainly is how tired, thirsty, and burnt I was. I remember the bruises neck to hipbone from being clamped to the rail by the surging crowd. I remember seeing the band from the waist up only because of how high the stage was (and not seeing then-drummer Jack Irons at all). I remember my tour partner opting to get pulled out of the pit entirely during opener Bad Religion and sit on the sidelines because he was so woozy from the day.

Our hands on the rail (with #s & wristbands) at Wrigley.

Other than a very ominous thunderstorm forecast, the conditions for Wrigley seemed eerily familiar. A burning hot July day in Chicago. A massive show with a General Admission area up front.

He almost talked me in to to taking it easy, almost talked me out of getting to Wrigley early. Almost. We compromised at hopping in a cab to Wrigleyville just after 7am. We easily found the cadre of fan clubbers lined up, and surprisingly only one line rather than one for each of the many gates. Out came the big black marker to ink our place in line on the back of our hands. My tour partner got number 22. And I got number 23. As Pearl Jam numbers go, it was a pretty good sign.

In a situation where so many things can go haywire with keeping order and with keeping yourself in any kind of shape to enjoy what you hope will be a marathon show hours and hours later in the day, Wrigley felt like a miracle long before the first note was even played. Not only did a couple of people from the Cubs staff come to speak to us in line, they agreed to honor the fans’ system since everyone was so well organized. They had us disperse until later, but fellow fans managed to keep a central place where all day people came to get their number in line. And at around 1pm, the Cubs folks formally lined us up behind a fence near the Ernie Banks statue out front, an area to which you not only had to have your magic-markered number but also a red 10C wristband to enter. To the hundred or so people there, my hats off to you. Friendly. Fair. Open. How often do 100 strangers manage to be that decent to each other?

It was fucking hot, however. Plenty of trips were made to 7-Eleven around the corner for supplies, to McDonalds across the street to pee, but most of the day was spent right there in line in the baking 98 degree July Chicago sun. Unlike Soldier Field however, we’d gotten plenty of sleep. We were pounding back plenty of water. Making sure to eat decently. Coating ourselves in sunscreen. Hiding out under an umbrella from 7-Eleven for shade.

When it started closing in on 5pm, the Cubs folks moved the line into position to enter. They checked our pockets and bags ahead of time. They assured us our line would be let in before any other gate in the place. And they even scanned our tickets in advance. It felt just a little bit like being in the starting blocks at the beginning of a track and field event, waiting for the starting gun. The excitement was really palpable among everyone there. Not least among the two of us, all those hours later and still fully charged, hydrated, fed, and feeling ready for whatever Pearl Jam had in store for us.

The sprint inside actually could have been an Olympic event. A hundred yard dash. Without even having talked about it, both of us had aimed our feet for the pocket on the rail between Eddie and Stone, and we made it, grinning with deep pleasure.

Before PJ took the stage, I witnessed one fan get down on his knee and propose to another fan (she said yes right before our eyes). It would come to be one of four engagements among 10 Club members in the GA pit at Wrigley that I would hear about before the weekend was over.

The Pearl Jam scoreboard at Wrigley.

I pushed the idea of terrible (ironic) lightning storms out of my mind as the muggy afternoon faded to evening, the start time of 7:30 came and went, and we fidgeted, waiting. Around 8:15, we could see those six familiar faces coming around the back of the stage in front of the bleachers in the outfield (and the scoreboard, which said, ” An Evening With Pearl Jam, July 19, 2013, Sold Out”). Mere feet away when they got into position, and the first chiming chords and Ed’s low rumble at the top of “Release,” I was astounded at how low the stage was, how close we were, that we’d made it all the way there ready to rock. My tour partner and I were moved to hug, a rarity.

“Release” set us off on the emotional roller coaster, Eddie’s big, deep voice rolling down centerfield all the way back into the stands like a reverse home run. By the time they hit “Lowlight,” five songs in, and we’re all singing that back at the band, I won’t lie — I am eyeing the gathering clouds and taking note of the notably tentative, quiet set so far. I’m holding my breath as the band’s security guy Pete comes to consult, off mic, with Ed before “Come Back.” It doesn’t bode well.

“Alright, we’re going to do this next one. And then we’re going to do another one. And then another one and then another one,” Ed says before “Small Town.” I feel a “but” coming. “But,” he continues, “they’re telling us there might be just a couple shifts in weather that might hit us pretty hard for a second. And there’s a lot of equipment hanging above the stage. We don’t want anyone near the stage. We’re saying that after this next song, we might have to take a slight readjustment in where we’re all standing in regards to this stage and where you’re standing out there. We’ll get through this one. They’ll give me another report. This is the kind of stuff we’re going to do together tonight because we’re all on the same team. But we’re real good at it. They can stop us for five minutes, then we’ll come back, HARD. Hard.”

At this moment, as the singalong for “Small Town” began and the idea of evacuating the field settled in, I felt a lot of equanimity. We’d gotten to the front to see our favorite band, and if our spot in the front only lasted 45 minutes, no hard feelings. Safe, not sorry. We wouldn’t ask for it any other way. We just hoped the show would go on, no matter where in Wrigley we happened to be standing.

Wrigley Field’s field, empty during the Pearl Jam rain delay.

Sure enough, the evacuation became necessary. After “Small Town,” Ed was back at the mic talking about “heavy weather,” and we could see the lightning bolts raging across the sky. (Later Ed would quip, “as the weather was coming in, we started to question the idea that we named our record ‘Lightning Bolt.’”)

Nine pm. Ed said the bad weather “is only going to last a half hour, but it’s going to take everybody about a half hour to get into safety.” Then he shared that, “the curfew has been extended” to cheers. “So whatever happens, we’ve got that.”

Of course, most people know that “whatever happens” certainly blew past that hour estimate of Eddie Vedder’s. We evacuated on cue, waiting to try to be the last ones out of GA. When the windy rain came, we were out of harm’s way, and had our ponchos on.

We stood there mostly dry, waiting, watching the sky. The main bout of “heavy weather” did blow through in about an hour, but as the fan near us with his Doppler radar app told us, an even worse storm cell was closing in. Ultimately it skirted Wrigley Field somehow. By this time, hours had passed. 11pm was a memory. The possibility that the show might still go on began to seem remote, but somehow it felt like they were back there trying to make it happen.

We’d begun creeping into as good a position as allowed in the event they let us back into GA, right in front of the cordoned off aisle leading to the GA pen. The first indication that the show would go on came from the tireless Wrigley Field worker manning that cordon. Get ready, he said, but if you jump the gun, I’m not letting you in first. Everyone behaved. And two hours and forty minutes after we’d left, my tour partner and I were pretty much first out of the gate and sprinting once again to the rail.

I remember the post-rain-delay run to the rail in slow motion. All I could see was the path, him a few paces ahead of me, us the only two fans in sight. I ran harder than I ever have in my life. A heartbeat later, both he and I were back on the rail in the exact same space between Ed and Stone that we’d left. A second later, a wall of fans seem to crash down around and behind us, just two steps behind. Crazy. Almost midnight, front row almost center again. Still ready for anything.

What happened next still feels like the real Wrigley Field show to me, as if that 40 minute set before the rain had been Pearl Jam opening for itself or something.

“You’re back! This is exciting,” Ed said when they took the stage, opening Wrigley take two with a litany about his love of baseball (meeting Ernie Banks and his friend Jose Cardenal) ahead of Cubs ode “All The Way.” “And then after that, it’s balls to the wall.” Adding, “Ernie Banks used to say, ‘let’s play two.’ I think we can say, ‘let’s play till two.’” He wasn’t kidding.

So how do you top talking about meeting “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks? You bring him out on stage right there at Wrigley. 82 year-old Ernie, wearing Eddie’s childhood baseball glove, promptly hugged Eddie and then welcomed all the Pearl Jam fans “to my house” just as Friday July 19 flipped to Saturday July 20.

Pearl Jam onstage at Wrigley after the rain delay.

And if you hadn’t got the message yet, next, PJ kicked right into “All Night,” with Mike McCready and his radioactive solos fully activated. Bang. “Do The Evolution.” Bang. “Corduroy.” Bang.

During “Faithful,” Ed turned his attention to us fans. “It makes me think about all the people that have been around Wrigleyville in the last couple days, and waiting in line, and tickets and commiserating and communicating being part of this little community. My brother was out there and he said, these are just great, great people. These are people that you want to hang out with. To see you out there, hanging out together and coming to this place to see and experience it together means a lot to us. And I know we’re just a band, but what YOU do, you’ve kind of turned just regular music and a regular group into something. Because of you, it’s something beautiful. And we just want to thank you for it.”

Eddie brought out the accordion for “Bugs.”

Moments later, PJ thanked us by playing “Mind Your Manners,” or should I say, launching a sonic assault with McCready’s jagged-edged guitars, Matt Cameron rioting on his kit, and Eddie yowling in fine form. Right into the live debut of the title track from the next Pearl Jam album, “Lightning Bolt.” Mid tempo. Plenty of waves, meteors, death, and heavy weather.

Amidst the hard stuff, the band wasn’t shy about keeping the eclectic choices on the setlist. Some grumbled that things like “Leatherman” and “Bugs” took up the precious Wrigley time (though no one had anything to say about Mike McCready’s guitar-only workout on Van Halen’s “Eruption”), while stalwarts like “Baba O’Riley” and “Yellow Ledbetter” didn’t get played. I’d have loved to have heard “Baba” that night, sure, and a pairing of “Mother” (which they played) with “Daughter” (which they didn’t) would have been interesting, but when a band is kicking it right into the wee hours, whatever ride they want to take you on is fine with me.

And besides, “Lightning Bolt” wasn’t the only debut of the night. They also introduced us to new ballad “Future Days,” with producer Brendan O’Brien playing keyboard. A love song about holding on to a long commitment (name checking, yes, bad weather: “the hurricanes and cyclones rage” and “the floods they came with the tides they raised”).

Eddie Vedder in the crowd at Wrigley Field during “Porch.”

The moment that Ed took to thank fans turned out to not be his only tender turn. For whatever reason, aptly ahead of “Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns,” he eloquently thanked his bandmates for giving him a chance back in the day. “I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank the guys, Mike and Stone and Jeff, and Matt even at the time. They had some faith in me, to allow me to be in something so important, which was their group,” he said. “Thanks for taking a chance on a young kid.”

Reminding us that that “young kid” Eddie is still in there, “Porch” got into a deep Jeff Ament-led groove and found EV not only racing up and down the gangway in front of the front rail shaking hands, but bodily climbing onto the rail, and falling backwards into the hands of the crowd, having faith in the audience. “Hold my hand / walk beside me…”

The pivot from the soaring “Black” into closer “Rockin’ In The Free World” felt a bit odd, as Eddie warned they only have five minutes left. But when you know it’s about to end, at two in the morning, against the odds, you savor every second of the lights up, tambourine-bashing workout even more. And you walk out of Wrigley, your home town, and meet up with all of your friends, and realize/remember two very important things: 1. Never take a second of this all encompassing trip for granted. 2. And always believe that sometimes you can somehow rock better than you did 18 years ago.

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.

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