Royce Hall, UCLA. Neil Young recorded "The Needle and the Damage Done" here. It's a beautiful little restored jewel of an auditorium, the opposite of Ackerman Hall, the other venue being used for the first U.S. All Tomorrows' Parties. Ed being on this bill is, as we all knew, somewhat of an anomaly. He's here with Television and Sonic Youth and their various side projects, and Sleater-Kinney and Aphex Twin and the Boredoms and Big Star and Wilco and Destroy All Monsters and dozens of other indie/underground/alternative bands hand-picked by Sonic Youth, the "curators" of the U.S. ATP, to populate the festival. They apparently took a lot of shit from the underground for the more popular (or rather, populist) acts on the bill, Ed being the most glaring example of this.
George brings out the first ukulele to loud cheers, and I'm not sure who or what gets the applause: George, the uke, or the fact this is a visible sign of Ed's presence. The crowd, mostly PJ fans (although there were plenty of Television devotees waiting along with us) has been fairly respectful throughout the evening's first five acts. Soon enough (although still 15 minutes late), Ed walks out to a standing ovation. No hat, mohawk in full effect. Seeing it in person for the first time is, admittedly, somewhat jarring visually. He sits down, catches a joint thrown at him with his usual precision, and then the crowd calms down enough for him to speak: "I'll get busted at the border going back to Seattle." I didn't see where he put it, honestly.
Ed picks up the uke and just starts playing: "Soon Forget." The crowd has done pretty well so far, only one neanderthal yelling through the other acts (he yelled "PLAY SOME FUCKING MUSIC" at the act that preceded Ed, which was Kim Gordon, Jim O'Rourke, DJ Olive and Ikue More - and when that didn't work, he resorted to "HEY KIM PLAY KOOL THING". A class act.) But after "Soon Forget" ended, just when I thought that this audience was here to listen to the music, the yelling started.
[No matter what I say or how I phrase it, someone's going to get pissed off, so let me just get it out of the way: Why do people have to scream like Ed's the Beatles at Shea Stadium at these quiet acoustic things? Why can't we give him respect and quiet? This is such an amazing time to be a Pearl Jam fan, we've never had Ed or anyone else in the band going out and playing brand new, unreleased material in front of us before, why on earth do you want to ruin it by acting like it's the Backstreet Boys or N'Sync? This isn't the same thing as a loud live electric PJ show. I just don't understand how people who claim they are huge fans would show a member of their favorite band such disrespect. You're not cool if we can hear you on the tape of the show. If you disagree, I think there are probably several thousand fans who would like a word with you about that. Flame on.]
A fan in the audience screamed that it was his cousin's birthday. Ed was about to start a sentence but that interrupted him, so he stopped himself and said: "Point well taken," and asked for the birthday person's name. This was like hanging up a sign that said EVERYONE YELL NOW. Ed sang happy birthday (which was actually kind of fun and cute), and then tried to move on, by continuing to strum quietly: "It's kind of an experimental festival here… so if… there's a song here, it's a really small genre of music, this would be speed thrash ukulele - a genre so small I think this is the only song." And with a little extra emphasis, Ed begins "Can't Keep". I really wish everyone had a chance to experience these small, intimate shows, just from the perspective of hearing new songs, it's really kind of overwhelming. The songs are just so new and fresh and raw, it's like watching an artist paint in their studio, or a cook in the kitchen, or a sculptor work with a raw hunk of clay. Playing that ukulele is not easy. It's not just like playing a guitar, as a friend of mine showed me over the weekend. It isn't the same chords, and you can't just move ukulele songs directly over to guitar. More on this later. (There's also no way that these are old Binaural leftovers - some people seem bound and determined to assign names from that first tracklist to any new song that comes up.)
"I decided not to say anything political tonight, just - my political statement will be to just play love songs all night… Lydia Lunch [NY punk poet/musician] apparently spoke here last night and said it ALL, I guess she called her piece 'Women and Children First'... and Mike Watt, we were talking earlier, and he said, to grow something really good, you have to have a lot of good manure, and a lot of it - so something good will come out, because there's a lot of shit going on out there, so - we'll all be fine."
He goes to focus on the ukulele, a little rough start, and then he finds the notes and starts singing. It's another new song, or at least a song we haven't heard yet: "I've got our love to remember…" it begins, and it's similar in theme to most of the other new material we've heard this month. Back to the ukulele: I know that a lot of people are kind of up in arms, or disturbed, or concerned somehow because Ed is playing all these songs on the uke, and has apparently told people he's written a lot of songs on the uke. I don't know, it's not worrying me or anyone I know - this doesn't mean the whole album will sound like "Soon Forget," or that these songs will go on the album, or that they would be played on ukulele if they were - I personally feel that Ed is using us as a test bed. He's just pursuing the time-honored tradition of working on material in front of an audience. (Which is another thing I don't understand, people who refuse to listen to these shows because they 'don't want to ruin the album when it comes out'. This isn't like getting the album two months early, which I can totally understand - for the entire history of rock music, musicians and bands have written new songs while on the road and tried them out in front of a live audience. It's all part of the creative process, and part of being a fan is hearing new stuff live and then seeing what happens to it later. To deprive yourself of the new material now just means you're going to miss this period in PJ's history - and yes, I know Ed is not Pearl Jam, but given that the band are in a writing/recording period now, what he's doing now is absolutely going to inform the music, if not directly affect it.)
Ed studies a setlist in his pocket, and then starts playing, and fucks up slightly - he kind of admonishes himself off-mic, and then looks at us: "I'm like a band, and we're arguing right now." He hits the strings again with more confidence, and it's my favorite song from the Wiltern: "Broken Hearted". This time, there's more quiet for him, and he seems more confident and more comfortable with the song, so it's a stronger version.
"There's a guy in Arkansas who is on death row… a lot of people, including me, don't think that justice was served, and he might be there, he doesn't belong to be there, and one of the interesting things is, knowing him for quite a while, and going down there, he had a relationship that started, and, you know, the woman, even though he was in prison and accused, they started a relationship and it's really been an incredible love story, that's a hard thing to take on, and-I was writing a song about something a bit more personal and it turned out to be a song about their relationship, and it's called 'Satellite'."
AH-HA! This is the "Satellite" that was played at the bowling alley birthday party, and now we understand why he played it there - that speech was clearly about Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, and Ed became friends with Rob Glaser (the birthday party recipient) through their shared support of the WM3 cause. This is probably the strongest of all of the new songs, it's sweet and almost bluesy, and Ed seems to play it the easiest. I can hear it on guitar, I can hear it being a Pearl Jam song - then again, just about anything could be a Pearl Jam song, I doubt I would have called "Evacuation" as a Pearl Jam song if I'd heard it played on ukulele for the first time.
Ed pulls out the setlist, looks at his watch - someone in the front gives him a time check, you hear him say under his breath "I've got sixteen minutes left? Thanks." He switches to the red Vox guitar he played at the Wiltern, and starts the now-familiar "Thumbing My Way." Truth be told, although everyone I knew at the Wiltern show raved endlessly about this song, it didn't strike me as strongly as any of the other songs did. Tonight, however, I finally recognize what everyone sees in this song. I see it as the continuation of "Long Road," which is what a friend of mine suggested when she heard it. I absolutely see it as a Pearl Jam song. It's deep and powerful and utterly perfect for Ed's voice. I think everyone in my row has tears in their eyes during this one. "Hang my head, count my steps as another car goes past…" It's just so strongly evocative, both lyrically and musically.
Someone yelling interrupts what Ed was trying to say, so we have no idea what he was going to tell us before "I Am Mine," and he forgets the words. Someone down front gives him a cue, and he starts again with more confidence. I don't know what people don't like about this song. Anyone who doesn't think that Ed was affected by 9/11 should probably take a look at these lyrics. Maybe I'm oversimplifying it, but it seems pretty straightforward to me. There doesn't appear to be anything ambiguous here.
Ed switches to the uke again and starts playing, and the spotlights above him switch to this pinspot design which catches him offguard - he makes a face and we laugh. It's "You're True," pretty faithful to the original version, played with a smidge more confidence - even the one small fuckup, Ed kind of smiles and shrugs it off. It's utterly soaring and joyous, and I could totally hear this rocking out.
"Thanks a lot… thanks for listening…" Just when we were really starting to wonder what that second microphone was set up for, Ed tells us: "I met a guy a couple months back, we met about 30 yards off the continent, down here in California, out in the waves - and I heard he played a 4 string instrument too, his instrument of choice is the violin - I'm not sure how old he is, but however he is, I know we've been practicing 'after school'…. This is James, everybody." [James Bailey, age 15, we'd find out later.] He walks out, pretty psyched: "How's it going, everyone?"
Uke again, another new song, Ed gets about half the first verse out before James slides in with this poignant underscoring of Ed's melody. It's already heartbreaking and the violin just makes it more so. We found out later that this song was called "Longing to Belong."
Ed gets up, puts his chair away, switches to the guitar. After extended applause, he begins and we all know this one: "Parting Ways." James does a great job of evoking the feeling of the strings in the original version of the song, while bringing his own feel and flavor to it. I love Ed's bare bones version, I love how many flavors and levels this song has, how he can play it under any conditions and make it change color: solo, acoustic pre-show; with Sonic Youth and Jim O'Rourke, where it sounds almost experimental; and now here, barebones electric with a gypsy-ish violin feel, but slightly punkish, underscoring Ed's vocals at the end, "drifting away……" and the two of them just getting into it, James totally rocking out, think Nigel Kennedy on "Baba O'Riley" from the Royal Albert Hall with the Who and you get the idea… then quiet again, ended by these great Townshend leaps from both of them and cacaphony on guitar and violin to end it. Great and energetic. "Thanks very much… my man James!"
I just feel so fucking lucky to be able to be present at this period in the band's history. Ed going out and playing brand new material, when tons of other artists (like Neil Young) won't play, or are highly reticent about playing unreleased songs because they DON'T want them on the internet, don't want them heard by everyone before they're ready. Ed doing these types of shows is absolutely historical and unprecedented, and borderline amazing to me. Unlike the other guys in the band, Ed doesn't get really get to have a side project - it's not like Brad or Three Fish or the Rockfords are for the respective members, where it's a completely different context, different music, and the focal point isn't them - so these kinds of shows are the closest thing we get to seeing Ed through another perspective. He rose to the level of the room and the festival and the context, and I thank Sonic Youth for sticking to their guns and inviting him to participate.
Note: We will have photos and notes and a mp3 from the Stooges tribute shortly; stay tuned.
Photos © 2002 Truent Conspiracy Collective
Copyright © 2004 Five Horizons