After almost having the trip scrubbed by the Northwest Airlines pilot's strike, it was finally happening. The plane had landed safely from Minneapolis, we had settled into the hotel, and now we were waiting in line to get our tickets ripped. Jason and I had spent all day playing in the ocean and talking about the previous night's show. You'd have never known that a hurricane was coming. It was nothing but blue skies, sunshine, and surf. We had few worries and were quite anxious to see the band again, this time from the seventh row.
As we waited, yellow-shirted security guys were telling people in line that "Pearl Jam has requested that you not bring blankets or towels in with you." BuuuuuullllSHIT, I thought. The night prior had been a fantastic show, our "seats" had been up on the lawn and it had been obvious what was up. The grass had been soaked. REAL soaked. If you pushed your foot down, water pooled around it. The top of the hill was totally dry and there had been no rain. They had watered it down. Before long they had been selling rain ponchos to sit on for $5 bucks apiece and I thought to myself: If the band knew about this pay-5-bucks-or-sit-in-the-mud scam, they'd be livid. I cursed the hopelessly greedy venue under my breath and went in.
After a fantastic set from Rancid and brief wait as the crew set the stage and lit the candles, the lights dimmed and "Aye Davanita" rolled over the crowd spawning scattered cheers. Most craned their necks as though that would help them see deeper into the stage area, trying to find the band. Finally they appeared and were met with a sustained roar. The first thought that occurred to me was "check out Mike!" He was wearing this skintight, lowcut, black Rolling Stones shirt, a black feather boa, and these tight sleeve-things that went from mid-forearm to mid-bicep. Also, he looked lean. He'd definitely lost weight during the tour. He looked fit.
The next thought was "What's it gonna be?" I was answered with the gentle opening notes of "Release," so bittersweet, and yet somehow consoling - a song to get lost in with your eyes closed and your heart swimming. Eddie's voice guided the song, letting it rise and recede like the ocean's waves that had rolled over me earlier in the day. Starting low and quiet, but slowly building into a desperate plea, "Release me," high, loud, and long that tried to fill everything with sound before quieting and then building again. Finally it ended.
I hadn't realized I was under a spell until I was torn from it suddenly. "Hail, Hail" was very energetic. Mike was running forward, then leaping back violently and whipping himself around. Never leaving his little area of the stage, just using ALL of it. Eddie was already starting to break a sweat and was punctuating his lyrics with sharp snaps of his head. Stone kind of bounced his way through the song, and seemed to be in a very good mood.
Then "Animal" with Eddie counting it on his fingers: "1-2-3-4...5 against 1." Jeff was jumping up and down and pounding it out. Fierce solo from Mike. Eddie was pushing it to the limit vocally. And then it got wilder. A false start riff warned us that "Spin the Black Circle" was next. Whoa! And they all just went off on a tear! I was afraid that Mike was gonna give himself whiplash as Ed sang "drop, drop, dropping it down ... ohhhh so gently". This went by fast and furious, not much more than two minutes with Ed so winded at the end he could hardly sing.
They took a second to get their breath and Ed spoke up. "Good evening ... to Florida show number two ... the last night of the tooooouuuuurrrr! So be lively, we're gonna be lively. It's our last chance for everybody ... besides, the hurricane's gonna kill us all, so let's go out with a bang!"
Then "Given to Fly." Behind them on the large backdrop was a time-lapse movie of fast rolling clouds. No horizon. No ground below. Just undulating, racing clouds. It was perfect. That song is so majestic and that natural image went with it so well. Matt Cameron was noticeably good during this song. Ed was a little off, but who wouldn't be after that devastating "Spin the Black Circle."
"Corduroy" was next. Pretty standard issue at first. Stone was bouncing around enjoying it the most, and then he changed it somehow. About halfway through, where the rhythm guitar changes pitch before the "everything has changed..." lyric. It sounded different. Same chords, but more fluid and urgent. It made your heart swell up in your chest. Eddie sensed it too, and changed the way he sings the "everything has changed ... absolutely nothing's changed..." lines. Deviating from the usual melody and feeling his way through it instead of thinking his way through it. The song had suddenly been elevated, and as it switched gears going into the solo Ed pumped it up calling out through the drums, guitars and the clap, clap, clap of the crowd: "okay let's go ... right now ... last night ... let's go ... LET'S GO!" as Mike launched into the solo playing it flawlessly with the guitar behind his head.
Then a very solid "Rearviewmirror" with some intense creative effects from Stone near the end. The crowd is going bananas after and Ed remarks, "Alright, you guys are sounding good now ... that's good. You're warmed up. We're warmed up up here, that's for sure." He's wipes his hands across his face and hair to clear the sweat and illustrate his point.
The rich sounds of "Wishlist" fill the night as the mirrorball slowly descends. The guitars sound more abrasive than is usual with this song lending it an edge that was very cool. Eddie ends it singing "I wish my seats were on the lawn 'cause they got all the grass. I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish ... sometimes, it works out."
Then into "Faithfull." It quickly became obvious that they all love this song. Jeff and Mike were facing each other in a little huddle by the drum kit, making their own private little jam session out of it each with their eyes on the other's guitar. Stone was all over his end of the stage, and bouncing again. The smile never left his face as he cranked out the rhythm with an expansive, exaggerated strumming style. Eddie remained focused, determined to deliver the song flawlessly. The last verse was sung very tenderly with a lot of hand gestures: sign language spelling out "M-Y-T-H", hands making a "box of fear," hands over his ears to "drown out," finally pointing to himself and the crowd and then vice-versa to illustrate "me you, you me... it's all related." So soft and beautiful.
"Even Flow" was a sudden jolt. The crowd was instantly nuts. It was a moving, living thing that was singing the song louder than Ed, who cried out halfway through "ladies and gentlemen, for the second night in a row, Mr. Mike McCready!" Mike's solo is blistering. He stood eyes closed, leaning back with his face turned skyward reminding me of Stevie Ray Vaughn. An open channel. Seeming not to think about what he was doing, but just letting the music run through him. I watched this transfixed. I knew that I was watching a legend and I was willing myself not to blink. Don't miss ANYthing. The song ended and I was left awestruck, covered in sweat and goosebumps.
One acoustic chord rang out softly and turned to Jason and said "Daughter." It sounded great, Vedder was dead-on-perfect, and the song moved with that melodic quick tempo that makes your head bob all on its own. Stone was so excellent and so into it, and the band seemed to get inspiration from him on this one. The tag was a nod to the opening band. "Time Bomb" by Rancid with Eddie singing "black shoes, black coat, black hat, cadillac...the girl's a time bomb.." Changing "boy" to "girl" made the tag dovetail nicely into "Daughter." Eddie mumbled something about talking "about the boys too..." and sang "He won the lotteryyyy..." I was screaming for more as "WMA" ended the Daughter jam.
At this point Lars Fredricksen from Rancid (amazing mohawk on this guy) stepped out onstage handed Eddie his guitar, lit up a a smoke for him, wiped his face with a towel, then shined his shoes with the towel, gave him a hug and flung the towel into the audience. Ed took this hilariously embarrassing display of reverence and respect rather well and then stepped up to the microphone. They were jamming this simple, repetitive rhythm and Ed started improvising lyrics for it:
- "Wave your hands.
- It feels good to wave your hands.
- Wave them to the sky.
- Wave 'em and ask 'I wonder why.'
- It don't matter when it gets to here.
- There's nothing matters except for the years.
- There's nothing matters except for the soul.
- There's nothing matters so you're just gonna have to grow.
- It doesn't matter why someday you're gonna die,
- 'cause we were there and we had a good time.
- Yeah, Yeah."
"Okay, were gonna call that song 'Life.'" he said. Then turned toward Stone, nodded and said "...and this is a song about when life kicks your ass." "Whipping" started in frenzy. Stone was jumping up and down almost in perfect sync with Jeff, and McCready had turned into a mad thing. Somewhere along the line he lost his shirt and he was running laps around the stage as he played. Diving behind Matt Cameron (who was a complete percussive blur) and around to the front almost tripping over Ed's cords as he jumped across center stage. The song ended and everyone left except for Mike and Ed.
Ed looked out at the crowd for a few moments and said "Wow what a coincidence, 'cause, um, this next song...actually...no question about it has to do with life as well. And it's one of my favorites. I bet it sounds good with the sky above you out in back there. This one's off the No Code record. It's called "Present Tense." I inhaled sharply and yelled "Yes!" I love that song so much. Then I settled down and watched as Ed and Mike, spotlight on a dark stage, played this song staring each other straight in the eyes the entire time. Until slowly, as the song progressed, other bandmates joined them one by one building to the song's long heavy jam at the end.
"Not for you" plodded by a bit slowly, but finished with an excellent solo from Mike, who it seemed was just getting warmed up for "Brain of J." He and Ed tore up the stage with this song which ended with Mike throwing his guitar up in the air and then pretending for a second to walk away before turning fast and catching it as the lights dropped low for "Black." It was like Mike wanted to make every song count because he knew this was his last night. He turned a fairly lackluster performance of "Black" into another incredible, emotional, powerful solo at the end. The others in the band watched him going at this with his fingers all a blur and drew inspiration from him. Ed turned back to the mic and added the "We belong together..." lines in a way that made the hairs on the back on my arms stand up and the slow graceful ending to the song was flawless.
The next song was "Alive," and Mike did it again at the end of that song. A solo so complex, frantic and beautiful. It made me feel extremely lucky to be there and alive in that corner of the world. Ed thanked us and they left the stage. I knew that they'd be coming back out, of course. And I wondered aloud to Jason what songs they might encore with. No one, however, could have predicted what was coming.
When the lights came back on there was a ping-pong table sitting in the center of the stage and a World Wrestling Federation-style M.C. was announcing the start of the "Premiere Pearl Jam Intra-band Ping Pong Challenge." It was Eddie and Jeff vs. Matt and Stone, so "Let's get rrrrready to RRRRRRRRRUMBLE!!!" Then with the "Star Wars" theme blaring triumphantly, it began. I was slackjawed. Stunned. No way, I thought to myself. This is too damn funny! Back and forth went the ball ... kerplink ... kerplonk ... kerplink ... kerplonk ... kerplink ... kerplonk ... WhoooooHooo Eddie scored! His face lit up with a smile. Stone was laughing. Then more action ... kerplink ... kerplonk ... kerplink ... kerplonk ... another point for Ed and Jeff! But wait the ball's loose! Where did it go? "Can we get another ball please..." says the announcer (who thought the ball looked flat). They get another one all right! Another thousand or so. A waterfall of ping-pong balls drops from high above the stage, and the band was swatting them into the crowd twenty at a time. I was laughing my ass off, as was everyone else - including the band. Finally the table was taken away and Ed stepped up to the mic sounding a bit bewildered and laughing. "What the fuck was that? ...It's snowing in Florida!"
Then he tossed a couple more balls to the people in the front and continued on thanking Rancid and the side stage band called The Surfers who had played before the show, saying that their new record is "quite good." Then he said "There's a number of you. I can pick out a few here ... you've been to like 18, 20 shows, or every show we've done. I just don't know how to tell you how that makes us feel...It's been great. So, we ain't gonna see another crowd for months and months. This is it. So, thanks a lot." Then, "I just changed songs on them so it's gonna take a second, but ... you might like it. I don't know ..."
What's this, I thought. A surprise? As I mentally ran down all of the possibilities, the opening chords of "Breath" rolled off the stage and I cheered and cheered! This sounded so good. Eddie totally let himself go at this point. His voice took on that angelic quality it gets when he's totally given himself to a song. That unselfconscious, candid urgency that's so riveting to hear. It was even cool when he momentarily forgot some lyrics and covered the mistake with "la la la la" because he smiled and shrugged to those in front as if to say "oh well, I'm trying though." At the end, he was throwing ping-pong balls at Mike, who batted them into the crowd with his guitar as he played (without messing up I might add).
Then Ed introduced "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" as "the longest title in the Pearl Jam catalog." This quickly turned into a huge sing-along with everyone there just wanting to scream HELLO so loud you could've heard it on Mars.
A flawless "I Got Shit" was next, followed by "Do the Evolution" at breakneck speed and dead-on precision. Ed was so pumped by the crowd and the energy and the fact that he obviously loves that song. He was hooting and screaming and doing this wicked little dance. Even though I'd heard it hundreds of times, it sounded fresh and new.
"Rats" was introduced as a "weird one" that people were asking for. Mike and Jeff were jamming together and Eddie was strutting around and grooving "ah they don't push ... don't crowd...congregate until their much too loud ... Fuck to procreate 'til they are dead...". Stone was really fun to watch. He had this super-sly evil grin on his face as he sang backup, hissing "Rats!" like he really relished the word. I noticed Ed had tossed a harmonica to someone down in front, and I thought "wow!" That would be a gift to be cherished. If I got a gift like that from a musician I admired, I wouldn't mount it in a shadowbox on my wall, I'd learn to play it. I'd try my hardest to become the best damn harmonica player I'd ever heard.
Then the guys switch places and instruments for "Smile" and I was singing along "three crooked hearts swirls all around her..." The connection between the band and their audience had become a tangible thing. "I miss you already..." had taken on a fresh meaning and as they said this to us we said it back. When it ended Ed said that "this is the only tour we are ever gonna stop where we almost wish we could play some more."
It was almost over and they knew it and they wanted every second to count for something. The energy the crowd was sending onstage was tremendous and "Leaving Here" was super tight. I was dancing and jumping. They ripped through the song and at the end Mike raised his guitar over his head and held it there, looking out into to roaring, teeming crowd and then brought it down. Bam! And again. Bam! And again. Bam! Smashed it to pieces. They left the stage leaving the crowd to beg for more, and we did. We screamed and screamed and pounded the seats, and then screamed louder.
Finally they came back out, promising one more. It was "Yellow Ledbetter," the almost-traditional show closer. But as Mike started it, I knew we were in for something special. There was a quality in his style that suggested an oncoming fireworks show. Eddie was singing it passionately and the entire scene felt like closure. The end of an adventure. But someone didn't want it to end. When the song was finishing, Mike played the final riffs for what seemed like an eternity. I wish it had been. We were treated to the knowledge of what "Yellow Ledbetter" would have sounded like had Jimi Hendrix played it at Woodstock. Long, high, warbling, harmonically vibrant and creative music that careened around and only vaguely clung to the original notes of the song. And just when you thought he was satisfied with it and it would cease, he would go off on another wild tangent full of lush new sounds and harnessed feedback. Mike McCready closed the tour with the most incredible guitar-play I have ever witnessed. When it finally did stop, Ed waved to the ecstatic crowd. "Thanks a lot. Goodnight. Goodbye!"
That experience will remain fixed in my memory forever. We left the very next morning, and as I stared out the window of the Boeing 757 at the looming clouds that were the leading edge of Hurricane Georges, I tapped my foot to the rhythms in my head:
- "Oh, I suggest you step out on your porch
- Run away my son, to see it all...
- oh, see the world...
- Oh, reach the door...a breath and a...
- Oh, reach the door"