The last time I was in Detroit, it was for a funeral. On a horrible Monday three months ago, I said goodbye to my grandmother. Back in town to witness Pearl Jam rock the Motor City, it was foreign to me to not be in her living room smiling as she plyed me with snacks and sweaters for the long GA wait.
Instead, I found myself in my dad’s backyard, giving him a hug after he reminded me it was almost a decade ago exactly we went to nearby Toledo to see PJ with unexpected guest Neil Young. Instead, I found my estranged cousin making it a point to come visit me in the GA line at Joe Louis Arena, bearing lunch and endless fascination with this idea of waiting all day on the sidewalk to get a good spot up front for the show. Inside Joe Louis Arena, when the lights went down at 8:15pm last night (October 16), and the opening notes of “Release” hit the crowd, electric, I found myself realizing how much I’d needed those moments with family, realizing how much I maybe hadn’t processed my gramma being gone. Here was Pearl Jam — live, loud, visceral — bringing it all home to me.
“Release” surfs into “Oceans.” Pearl Jam will be exactly 24 years old next week, and that opening combination is as rare as they come. We’re enchanted. “Nothingman” glides in. Then the rocket launch of “Go.” But soon, Ed Vedder is getting emotional, talking about the death of Ikey Owens, who played keyboards for Detroit native Jack White, sending the rarely played “Light Years” out to anyone dealing with loss. I drank it in, reminded how PJ’s music is so often just what I need it to be right when I need it. “No time to be void, or save up on life. No, you gotta spend it all.”
From there on out, the sound buoyed me up. The audience, a roar of voices, found frenzy and rapt attention, but no undue crush forward. We were free to actually dance. The band soon turned to playfulness. Maybe I hallucinated it, but I swear they played an instrumental bit of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by Detroit’s own Stooges to lead into “Corduroy.” Eddie put on an impish grin to talk about the existence of a mysteriously low urinal backstage in the Detroit Red Wings’ locker room (he said Stone’s theory was that it was so low because hockey players have such big dicks) and dedicated “Black Red Yellow” to ex-Detroit Piston Dennis Rodman. As Mike, Stone, and Matt locked into the groove, Ed hefted his guitar over his shoulder during “Rearviewmirror” like a player at bat and took a swing at the huge globe light in front of him, cracking it into pieces. Later, he went full-on Townshend, windmilling at one guitar and smashing another one into the stage gleefully.
Jeff homed in on his bass, Stone seeming amused but peeling out riffs , Mike cavorting all over the stage as he unloaded solos. Boom anchored at his organ. Eddie roving into the side stage sections and into the GA pit during “Last Kiss,” that voice booming out over us. The six players on stage and their command of it, the alchemy of setlist (including such a powerful cover of “Imagine”) and city and state of mind and crowd combining in that never-the-same-twice feeling that had all of us gathered, focused on the present moment, from around the world and around the country in Detroit Rock City.
And when they pulled out “Kick Out The Jams” by Detroit’s own MC5, it was no surprise, but it sure felt right, moving it into an even higher gear for “Baba O’Riley” before an intense, somber “Indifference.” “How much difference does it make?” The answer has always been, a lot. It makes a hell of a lot of difference.