Dead Man Walking: The Concert
I was not going to go to this show, despite an awesome guest list and the potential to hear Eddie and Jeff play some very different types of music. It's puzzling to me now; having spent some time travelling in India, I'm a huge fan of the music of that region and truly loved the soundtrack of the album and Ed's work on it. I think it had something to do with having spent the money to travel to Maui, and probably work deadlines, but from my vantage point now that decision makes no sense at all!
The deciding factor for me was when I read that they'd only sold 1,200 of the 6,000 tickets available. I cruised on over to TicketMonster Online and pulled up what looked like a very very good seat; but I didn't take it because it was $100 and I didn't want to put out that much cash before I knew I had a place to crash in LA -- no way I could afford the plane fare AND a car and hotel. So I let it go, called my LA friends, and waited.
By the time I heard from them, that magic ticket was gone, but they had bought Golden Circle seats anyway. I vacillated in that state Jean and I call "the PJ waffle": should I go, no I shouldn't, yeah, I'll go, no, it's too much money, and Jean finally presented all the reasons I should go and not many against it. (She is a bad influence! =) ) Adding to that was shifting project deadlines at work, and there was no good reason I shouldn't go. And finally, I knew if I didn't go, I'd be sitting at home reading about Eddie and Bruce Springsteen (who was strongly rumored to be one of the guests) dueting on "Adam Raised A Cain" and I'd have to throw myself off the top of the Space Needle. So I bought my tickets, booked my plane fare, and was set.
We arrived at the Shrine Auditorium, which we all watched the previous Tuesday night during the Oscars. I gotta tell you, this place bears absolutely no resemblance to what we saw on TV! It's much smaller, older, run-down. The seats are uncomfortable and it was FREEZING. We made our way down to our seats as soon as they opened up the hall and found ourselves in the 6th row, on the side, right on the aisle in front of the presenter's podium; you Oscar fans can note that we sat in the same seats as James Cameron and his Titanic entourage. (Maybe that's why it was so fucking cold!) Wonderful seats, great view of the stage.
The show started at 8:15 with Steve Earle, who played a short, thoughtful set. Tim Robbins came out to the podium afterwards and introduced the evening, and then read a short passage from the Dead Man Walking book to kill time while the stagehands set up. I was really glad I had hunted down the book last weekend and read it; I'd seen the movie but never read the book, and I was glad to have it fresh in my mind throughout the evening.
Michelle Shocked was on next. I haven't followed her stuff since the days of the Texas Campfire Tapes, and I have to say that I was completely knocked out by her stunning, energetic, heart-felt performance. A complete surprise, and raised the energy in the auditorium by 1000%. She mentioned before one song that she'd written it at Tim Robbins' request; unlike most soundtrack proposals, she explained, he sent a rough edit of the film on videocassette with a note that said, "If this film inspires you, please write a song," and she did (the scene she wrote about was subsequently cut out of the movie).
Tim Robbins came back on and distracted us again during the changeover by relating a story: that Sister Helen Prejean had asked him to try to interject "a little humor" into the screenplay. He was going to try to bring that spirit into the evening, and so he read an amusing list of (fake) songs for the soundtrack that didn't get used; our favorite was, "I May Have Killed But You All Suck". While he was reading the list, he picks up a piece of paper and reads, "I'm the king of the world, moment of silence -- oops, what is this piece of paper doing here, they didn't do a good job of cleaning up after Tuesday night..." (making reference, of course, to Titanic director James Cameron's acceptance speech) and the audience erupted in laughter. The evening was well-organized, but not over-organized, and not sloppy, which is usually a fear at these kind of large, first-time productions that involve multiple acts. There was a good pace to the evening, and the only regret was that there wasn't more time for some of the artists to play longer sets.
Lyle Lovett followed and played a pleasant, unremarkable set (at least in my opinion), and then we had a short intermission, which I used to try to look for familiar faces, chat with the wonderful people from the Tom Waits mailing list who were in the row next to us, and stretch. 15 minutes stretched into half an hour, but before we knew it, Tim came back out, the audience buzzing with anticipation for the next artist, and admitted that this next artist was the one he was personally waiting for, and the curtain opened to Tom Waits and the audience leapt on their feet and erupted in a loud, boisterous, joyful standing ovation.
For all the PJ fans bitching about PJ "only" doing a tour every two years and "only" playing 30+ dates, well, try being a Tom Waits fan: the man hasn't toured since 1988, and plays scattered shows infrequently. Frankly, I'd given up hope on ever seeing him play live. I have to say that I was absolutely not disappointed in any way and it far exceeded my wildest expectations. He ruled the stage like an artist who spent most of his time touring, and held the audience in the palm of his hand without even trying very hard.
We got three songs with the band, two songs with just Tom and the piano, and then they closed the set and walked off to yet another well-deserved, thunderous, standing ovation, and became the first artist of the night to get an encore. I could have watched him all night, and was happy to learn that he'll be doing a proper tour next year. Ani DiFranco put it best later: "I just have three words about tonight: Waits, comma, Tom."
Sister Helen Prejean came on next, and made the evening's first reference to PJ -- how she wasn't familiar with them at all and the first time she heard "Pearl Jam" thought it was something like "Smucker's Jelly". She is a very compelling, effective speaker, and introduced the members of the beneficiaries of the night -- Murder Victims' Families For Reconciliation -- who also got another standing ovation from the crowd. She also mentioned that the reason she wanted to have a concert as a fund-raiser was that she found music to be a very positive force.
Tim Robbins comes back out and prefaces his introduction of the next performer by saying, "The only reason Ani DiFranco wasn't on the Dead Man Walking album was that I was too lame to know any better," and added that he hoped that she'd turn his 12 year old daughter away from Hanson.
Ani took the stage next, alone, with acoustic guitar in hand. The last time I saw her was almost three years ago, when we roadtripped to Evergreen State College in Olympia on a Tuesday night, because that was the closest she was coming to Seattle on that tour (well, the time before that, we went all the way to Bellingham, so that was a field trip in comparison). And just like every other time I have seen Ani DiFranco, I got goosebumps, I am utterly entranced and my mouth hangs open in wonder, I vacillate from tears to shrieking laughter. The only person who has a similar effect on me is Patti Smith, and tonight once again reinforced that comparison in my mind. Powerful, vulnerable -- honest is the only word I can use to describe Ani live. She did a mix of songs, old and new, and her last number was "Fuel", the song Eddie played on Monkeywrench in January during one of the dj segments. She left the stage, telling us, gleefully, that we were about to see something very special.
It was obvious during her set how the audience had shaken out; the Tom Waits fans were downstairs, and by far the largest contingent, while the Ani fans were in the balcony and were the second largest group representing that night.
She left the stage to yet more thundering applause, and now I'm starting to get nervous and the pj butterfly syndrome going in my stomach. Take out the camera, check it 15 times, sort out the notebook, I don't want *anything* distracting me during the next set. The house lights come up dimly while the stagehands bustle around, and it was during this interlude that certain people in the balcony felt the need to voice their opinions, to the tune of "EDDIE VEDDER SUCKS!!!" This pearl of wisdom was voiced more than once, and reminded me why I haven't seen Ani for three years: I can't stand what her audience has become.
Tim Robbins finally comes back out and I have to say I don't remember much of what he said by way of introduction; he did talk about Nusrat, and then told us who was going to be playing in the band: Nusrat's nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, his tabla player, Dildar Hussein; Tim's brother, who arranged the score of the movie, David Robbins, Jeff Ament (doh!), John Densmore (!!!) of the Doors on doumbek, and finally, Mr. Ed on vocals.
The stage was set up in the traditional style for Qawwali music, with a platform and pillows, and Eddie walked out wearing a white jacket and brown shirt/trousers, acoustic guitar in hand. The crowd cheers wildly, and as it quiets down, he comments quietly, "I thought you said I suck," not looking up at the audience as he tuned his guitar. He takes a seat and starts playing and I start taking pictures, only to realize two seconds later WHAT he is playing: the elusive "Trouble" that's been haunting us throughout the entire Australian tour. He looks very tan, still, and sounds wonderful: his voice is clear, warm and vibrant, and his rendition flawless. (I should also mention that the sound mix for the entire show was incredible.)
A hatless, also tan, shorts-wearing Jeff walked out next, "Daughter" stand-up bass in hand, and sat behind Eddie on a stool. Ed then tells us how he wrote the next song after talking to Tim Robbins on the phone, that he hung up the phone and didn't move from where he was sitting, Dead Man Walking on the video, and wrote the next song. He then called up Tim and said, "Hey, I wrote this song, it's called 'Dead Man Walking'", and that Tim had said, "umm...that's great, but Bruce Springsteen just gave us a song called 'Dead Man Walking' and I kinda gotta use his -- it's a seniority thing," raising much laughter from the crowd. "Well, at least we got a b-side out of it" -- and I'm scrawling down "Dead Man" -- and he finally murmurs, "One of my favorite songs" and they launched into this chilling, stunning rendition of the song, a zillion times more compelling than the studio version.
When writing about the performances tonight, I keep wanting to use the word "polished" but that's not exactly right; well-rehearsed isn't true either. I think it was more that the artists took their involvement with this concert very seriously, and as a result the one quality all the performances shared was a definite dignity, a gravity of presentation, as though underscoring the fact that while this was a concert, there was a very serious reason we were all here.
Then the rest of the musicians walked out and took their places, Ed hits one chord, I murmur "Long Road" to my friend Karen next to me, and sure enough, that's what it was -- but like no version of "Long Road" you've ever heard. Imagine your dream version of this song, close your eyes and you can see it (maybe, if you were that lucky), the mirror ball spinning, the music building in layer after layer, like waves crashing on a beach. Well, multiply the feeling you get from that a million times over. This version of "Long Road" was so profound, it took the song to a level so far above anything the band have done as "Pearl Jam". I'm the first one to testify that rock and roll can change the world, and I'm not minimizing the role PJ play in that story, but this was something eternal, something timeless, something utterly precious and compelling.
Eddie would sing a verse, and then Rahat would chant in the Qawwali style, then another verse -- Eddie's voice stunning in its power and magnificence, as though Rahat was inspiring him to push himself to new limits -- and at the end of the song, I'm sitting forward with my eyes closed, just floating along on the music and the energy and the vibe, and suddenly it dawns on me that there are now two voices chanting; I open my eyes to see that, yes, Eddie is chanting along with Rahat, and I am speechless. There was a little shyness or hesitancy, as though he feared to intrude upon an area he knew he didn't really belong in, but threw himself into it with love and affection, the latter written all over his face as he looked to his side, where Rahat was sitting. This song surely lasted 10 minutes, or maybe it was just that I felt like time had temporarily been suspended.
They finish, and Ed and Jeff exchange what look like smiles of relief mingled with triumph, and the next song is "The Face of Love" -- my notes say "this is probably the most beautiful thing I have ever heard" and it's not an understatement. Rahat's vocals, the amazing tabla playing -- when I was in India I wanted to learn tabla and they told me it was something like a 12 year apprenticeship for serious musicians -- for a moment it felt like the Shrine Auditorium had slipped between the worlds. We were not on this planet, and we were orbiting on the strength of the music being created on that stage.
And Eddie was sitting there, truly deferential to the master musicians sharing the stage with him (or rather, vice versa), breaking out into the most amazing, genuine smiles -- he looked so fucking happy up there, so happy, so intense. Many times, when musicians explore genres of music that are completely foreign to them, they can play the styles or the instruments proficiently, but what usually seems to be missing is the original spirit behind the music. Qawwali is a highly spiritual musical style, and therefore it's no wonder that Eddie -- and Jeff, with the heavy influence of the Sufi mystic Rumi on Three Fish -- could temporarily step into another musical world for a little while and rise to the challenge.
The musicians left the stage to the final standing ovation of the night, and then Tim Robbins came out, thanked us all, and pointed to the piano being moved onstage again -- "You all know what that means" -- as the entire ensemble came out, led by Tom Waits and augmented by Bonnie Raitt (who spent the show two rows in front of me and won my heart forever by turning around and telling the obnoxiously loud Melrose Place rejects in front of me to shut the hell up during Ed and Jeff's set) -- and launched into Waits' "Innocent When You Dream," Eddie, Tim Robbins, Steve Earle and Ani DiFranco front and center on backing vocals, Jeff hiding in the corner in the back on tambourine. The only sound problem of the night occured in that the center microphone didn't seem to be on much of the time, and we couldn't hear the vocals -- but the moment that truly captured my heart and put a seal on the evening was during one of the last verses, when Eddie dropped back from the mic to watch, entranced, at Tom Waits, like an awestruck fan, so much so that he missed his cue for the chorus and Ani had to drop back and gently tug on his sleeve to pull him back (which he did half-heartedly, obviously not wanting to pass up this chance to watch Tom Waits from a few feet away!).
That was the end; everyone waved goodbye, and Eddie and John Densmore and someone else (don't recall who) grabbed the cushions they sat on during their set up from the platform and started hurling them into the audience! Ever see a group of grown adults dive for a large PILLOW?! (Okay, if one had come anywhere near me, this adult would have dived too. That would have been fun carrying on the plane this morning).
During the intermission, when I was chatting with the Tom Waits fans in my row, I was sharing how I was so excited to be here because it wasn't a "Pearl Jam" show, it was going to be something utterly -- other. He nodded agreement vigorously and said, you can always see Pearl Jam, but you're never going to see anything like this. I had no idea how very right we both would be.
One last note: my friend Karen got up her nerve go to over and talk to Tim Robbins, and while she was waiting, she overheard him talking to a reporter, and confirmed that this show will be commercially released in the future. I don't think I have to tell you you need to go and buy this. =)
Usually, when I'm sitting here writing, I've got music blaring in the next room; I also cannot fly without a walkman. But after last night's show, I just couldn't bring myself to shatter the spell by listening to anything just yet. And that is probably the highest compliment I could pay Ed, Jeff and the rest of the musicians who participated in this concert.
the receptionSo, our $300 tickets entitled us to an after-show reception "with the artists." I said, no way in hell Ed and Jeff will show, and I'd heard that Tom Waits' manager said that he wouldn't be there either, but we were there, so we figured "why not" (and we were HUNGRY!). We walked back into this ugly, cavernous, freezing cold airplane hangar (well, it felt like it), joined a very long line to get some hors d'ouvres (not having eaten dinner), and stood off to the side, surveying the crowd. To our left, I could see that a temporary photography set had been constructed, and I turned to my friends and said, "I think you're right, there probably will be a live album released from this, they probably did a photo shoot for it here earlier."
And then over on the other side of the room, we could see the artists starting to file in, and the crowd visibly surged en masse and engulfed Eddie (and to a lesser extent, Jeff). We walked around the edges, me shaking my head -- it seemed like no one was TALKING to him, everyone was just sticking things in his face to sign, and while yeah, we did bring some items ourselves, we would have had a conversation with them first before asking if they would mind being so gracious as to sign something. So we dropped back and waited, hoping things would chill out.
Then the various artist "handlers" pulled everyone inside the set for the photo shoot, fans spilling over the edges, knocking into the set. We kinda watched from the side, and observed other people milling around -- Robbie Robb, Don Was, Rick Rubin in our immediate vicinity -- and then when the shoot broke, thought about trying again. We got close enough to notice things like Eddie having a conversation with a friend, only to be interrupted by people sticking programs and pens at him, him absentmindedly scrawling his signature and continuing the conversation -- people were even sticking their heads next to his and flashing cameras at him. The only cool interaction I saw was the dude who walked up to him with two beers and handed Eddie one. Ed smiled, accepted the beer, clinking bottles with his benefactor, and then insisted they link arms and drink the first slug together. Jeff had snuck away earlier, and shortly after this Ed and Beth and some friends managed to get out of the circus.
Before I get tons of hate mail from people, let me just say this: if you had a cool, respectful interaction with Jeff or Ed that night -- good for you, and I'm sorry I didn't see it; all I can write about is what I did see. Of course I wanted to talk to him and Jeff, but I wasn't going to barge into a personal conversation to do it, and I have no interest in just getting a scrawl on a piece of paper or an album cover -- to me, it would just seem rude.
Thanks to Jeff & Karen for their hospitality (and to Karen for getting up at 4:45 to drive me to the airport!), the gracious gentleman from Raindogs who let me lean in front of him repeatedly to take photos during Ed & Jeff's set, and to Bonnie Raitt and her entourage for shutting up the bimbos in front of us during the same set.
Text, photos and graphics © 1998 Caryn Rose