September 3, 2011
Alpine Valley Music Theater
Pearl Jam kind of painted themselves into a corner with this one. The band that rose from the ashes of Mother Love Bone spent their first few years as the biggest band on the planet (their sophomore release Vs. broke records with 950k units sold in the first week), but has since spent the last 17 or so trying to shrug off that fame while still playing to hundreds of thousands every year and putting out reasonably solid if not Zeitgeist-capturing albums. When such a band celebrates its 20th anniversary with a pair of star-studded shows, expectations naturally run high. Did the first night of Pearl Jam's stay at Alpine Valley measure up? Yes and no.
Sorry: that answer isn't as ambivalent as it sounds. This wasn't a little yes and a little no. It was a lot of each, so let me try to explain. From the moment the lights came up on Stone Gossard playing the chiming intro part for "Release," it was clear that Pearl Jam had a lot of capital to work with when it came to what appeared to be the over 30,000 fans assembled for the event. The daylong drizzle had lifted and Eddie Vedder stood center stage, without guitar, a flashback for this writer to seeing them at the University of Massachusetts' Multi-Purpose Room with about 600 other people in the spring of 1992. As each verse rose into each chorus, his hands would rise from his sides in kind and he would tweak the words just a bit from "Oh, dear dad / Can you see me now?" to "Can you see this now?" It felt only right to be swept into the grandeur.
Then they started cashing in their capital, dropping right out of "Release" into a cover of "Arms Aloft," a song from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros' final release, Streetcore. From there, they proceeded into a string of mid- to late-career cuts: "Do The Evolution" from Yield, "Got Some" from Backspacer, "In My Tree" from No Code, and "Faithful" from Yield. When Vedder introduced a backing chorus consisting of openers Joseph Arthur, Glen Hansard, and Liam Finn, he said they would be playing some songs they didn't normally get to do because they had so many friends around to help them. The chorus chimed in on "Who You Are" from No Code and more guests started arriving: Julian Casablancas from the Strokes joined Vedder (rather lamely and inessentially) on "Not For You"; Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme turned "In the Moonlight" from a throwaway B-side into an off-kilter swampy shuffle with an excellent solo from Mike McCready; and George's son Dhani Harrison (of opener the New No. 2) added a third and largely superfluous guitar to a coruscating "State of Love and Trust."
The problem with all these guest spots--and the crux for any band attempting a so-called "special" show--is that they often took away from the other songs. Vedder fumbled the opening to "In My Tree," and "Breath"--fun as it was to hear a non-album track they played back at that show in '92--never exactly felt like the "Breath" we know and love. Other odd choices from their catalog (the undistinguished "Push Me, Pull Me" from Yield and "Education," a track not even good enough to make the underwhelming Binaural) made for uneven pacing and a palpable sense of relief when they relented and played "Deep" and "Once" from Ten and "Betterman" from Vitalogy. The "Don't run away" call and response sing-along that rose out of the tag to the latter was one of the true moments of communion during the show.
But then the game changed. After coming back from a short break with a by-now-familiar extended version of Vs.'s "Rearview Mirror," Vedder introduced Chris Cornell and the people around me started jumping up and down and dancing in circles and hugging strangers. Cornell took over while Vedder took a break and, after a brief recounting of the death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, launched into a cover of Mother Love Bone's "Stardog Champion." People were, to put it mildly, losing their shit. The song's funky grandeur and T. Rex-esque lyrics are a far cry from the twisted, involuted emotional territory that Vedder navigates, but it's nevertheless possible to hear the seeds of what Pearl Jam would become in Stone Gossard's snakey, spiraling guitar line.
From there, it got epic as the reunited Temple of the Dog (a side project tribute to Wood that released one self-titled album in 1991 and consisted of Cornell, guitarists McCready and Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Matt Cameron) proceeded through "Say Hello 2 Heaven," "Reach Down," and "Hunger Strike." A comprehensive understanding of what exactly was happening made it all feel near historic: Vedder had just joined the nascent Pearl Jam when Temple of the Dog was recording, and his contribution to "Hunger Strike" represents his real first step as a professional musician. And there he was! Stepping back on stage to join the band he would go on to lead to glory! The sheer moment of it overrode concerns about a few flubs throughout the mini-set.
Cornell exited and Pearl Jam ripped through a colossal version of the Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me" and "Porch," the song that Vedder used to crowd surf during back when that was a thing people did. When the band left the stage, there was a sense that now we were going to get some crowd pleasers: "Alive," "Even Flow," "Daughter." But instead Pearl Jam returned with Mark Arm, whipped off a chaotic version of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams," and waved a thank you goodnight.
The crowd was a bit dumbstruck and people began murmuring about the songs they hadn't played, sensing that the next night's show was maybe where the money was. It turns out they were right: Sunday night's set included the aforementioned hits plus "Nothingman," "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," "Yellow Ledbetter," "Black," and others. Watching the setlist build via Twitter the next night, you could see where the action was.
And yet: that's the rub, isn't it? At a show like this, every song is valuable real estate, and it's easy to look at "Do the Evolution" and "Push Me, Pull Me" and wish for better, even as Temple of the Dog's performance represented a once-in-a-lifetime kind of moment. If a band with a legacy and a catalog like Pearl Jam just plays it safe with the hits, people will wonder what made this different from any of the other dozens of shows they've been to. But every special collaboration or rarity played takes the focus away from the simple work of putting together the best performance possible. In a sense, then, the show was at its best as "Release" crested and broke to open the night with us, the audience, not knowing which way this whole thing was going to go but at least knowing we were in for something unique.
Personal Bias: If I traveled to an alternate universe where Pearl Jam didn't exist and I met myself on the street, I don't know if I'd recognize me.
The Crowd: A surprisingly balanced mix of ladies and dudes of many ages, but with a median age of somewhere around 30 with a hip factor short of Uptown but well ahead of Maplewood.
Overheard in the crowd: "But Jerome Bettis is, like, a good guy, you know?"
Random Notebook Dump:
There's a very real possibility that this is the first time "Say Hello 2 Heaven" has ever been played live. And the last. (Turns out it was played at least one other time, in 1990
Arms Aloft (Joe Strummer cover)
Do the Evolution
In My Tree
Who You Are w/ Liam Finn, Joseph Arthur, Glen Hansard
Push Me Pull Me
Not for You w/ Julian Casablancas
In the Moonlight w/ Josh Homme
State of Love and Trust w/ Dhani Harrison
Stardog Champion w/ Chris Cornell
Say Hello 2 Heaven w/ Chris Cornell
Reach Down w/ Chris Cornell
Hunger Strike w/ Chris Cornell
Love, Reign O'er Me (The Who cover)
Kick Out the Jams w/ Mark Arm (MC5 cover)
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