review by Daniel McCarthy
Pearl Jam can never seem to get it right. When they first arrived way back when in 1991, they were seen at best as a second-rate option to Nirvana, and at worst as Guns'n'Roses dressed up in flannel. Then, as the years went by and the band's unflinching credo that NOTHING MATTERS BUT THE MUSIC slowly began to seep into the media's consciousness, the popular perception of the band changed from one of blatant sell-outs to that of a humourless, introverted band, devoted to the art of no compromise. As is usually the case with popular opinions, both these descriptions of Pearl Jam missed the mark by several miles. The concert I saw last night, at Thebarton Oval in Adelaide, Australia, served only to highlight that fact. And what is more, it once again proved (as if any more proof is required) that Pearl Jam stand head and shoulders above any other band in the world today.
My concert experience began a little after two in the afternoon, when my friends and I arrived at the venue (a large oval no-one had ever heard of before) and promptly found that we had to sit in the road (it had been blocked off) and swelter beneath the fierce midafternoon sun. A quick drive for some sunscreen and the placing of shirts over our heads saved us from getting burnt too much, but for a couple of hours until the sun lost its power it was kinda uncomfortable.
Nonetheless we sat and chatted (discussing probable setlists) and after the usual interminable delays the gates opened a little ahead of schedule, just before six in the evening. Due to our four hour vigil we were basically at the head of the line, and so we were well placed to begin the half-oval dash toward the stage, so as to secure our spot in the partitioned section of the pit. Despite security guards screaming at us to walk (try telling twenty thousand people to walk!), we managed to secure spots in the very front row, to the right of the stage (i.e. in front of Stone Gossard). We then sat down and waited.
More talk, undercut by the Beastie Boys on the P.A. and the slow disappearance of the sun. It had not been gone long before as one the crowd stood, and a few minutes later Shudder to Think took to the stage. I suppose opening for Pearl Jam is a daunting task for any band, but Shudder to Think did not do a very good job of it. Despite the fact the lead singer resembled Michael Stipe, the guitarist Chris Cornell and the bassist James Iha, the band itself was rather boring, and the audience spent most of its time and energy booing and shouting advice, such as to leave the stage and not come back. The band played for half an hour then called it quits, to rapturous cheers.
And that left Pearl Jam. There was less of a break between bands than usual, and it was barely dark by the time the drums from Red Dot (or whatever that song is called) began to roll. The crowd cheered, and a few moments later the band appeared. They looked altogether different than in '95 - Eddie has short hair and was dressed in a tight leather jacket, Jeff was in a black suit and his white tank top and a white hat (which he wore the whole show), Stone wore his glasses, and Mike McCready stood rooted to the spot above his pedalboard and looked, well ... big. And up the back my personal favourite in the band, Jack, has had a haircut since the '96 shows.
The band opened with MFC (an unusual choice, but one we later decided worked well), before launching into a rocking Brain of J. This was the song in which the crowd really began to go berserk, and from here on in the crowd-surfing was constant. It was also during this number that some shaved monkey managed to drop my shorts, which meant I witnessed the rest of the concert in my underwear! :o)
After Brain of J came Hail Hail, which (like most of the songs) was a touch slower than usual. They were played more at the speed on the record, rather than the speed that they're usually played at live. This was particularly the case with Animal, which nonetheless was marked by Mr. McCready's first of many incredible solos.
Do the Evolution followed, which saw Eddie waving the mic stand around, and Stone making several of his trademark hilarious faces. A fairly standard version of Dissident followed (I'm sorry, but this song never really excites me), and then a version of Jeremy that I don't remember because of the number of crowd surfers landing on me.
Between songs Eddie talked to the crowd, trying in his own cool little way to use local euphemisms. None of them quite came off, but he was still very cool, and far more receptive and flexible toward the crowd than any other international band that I can think of (although Dave Grohl comes close). At any rate, Eddie talked about drinking Coopers (a local beer) and made fun of Liam Gallagher, saying something along the lines of, "I don't know...I'll speak for all of us here and say that we all love Liam Gallagher. (big cheer)" He went on to make fun of Mr Gallagher's recent troubles in Australia (he headbutted some guy trying to take a photo of him, evidently), before finishing his little speech with a thoroughly sarcastic, "This rock star thing, I fucking love it!" (not word for word but exact as I can remember).
All of this endeared him to the crowd, and when the band launched into Corduroy the moshing was even more frenetic than before. This song was a lot better than in Melbourne (3/5), without the little pause/fuckup bit that marred the radio broadcast version. Wishlist followed, and then Lukin, and then I Got ID, which received enormous cheers from me. This last song must be one of my all-time favourites, Pearl Jam or otherwise, and to see the band itself playing it no more than ten to fifteen feet away was incredible. One moment I shall never forget is the sight of a landing airliner (the venue was close to the airport) flying behind the band (there was no backdrop, just the stage and the rigging holding the lights in place) to the strains of I Got ID.
Even Flow followed (another great solo from McCready), and then a standard version of Daughter (I didn't recognise the tag at the end). There was a small pause while the band conferred, before they launched into Given to Fly. Before the song Eddie wished that by the time it was finished, he would be at the back of the moshpit. It didn't happen, but the crowd cheered anyway...
After Given to Fly came Ed's finest moment in terms of connecting with the crowd. All alone, he began to play a quiet tune on the guitar that resembled Wishlist more than anything else. After a moment, he began to sing "Lemonade" several times, then "Gatorade," and then finally "Adelaide," to which the crowd cheered. This was followed by an amazing version of Habit, with a longer than usual pause at the end (the song faded into silence much like the Foo Fighters do) before the jam kicked in. There was another little Ed speech at this point, altho I can't remember the exact words, he told us the next number was "a quiet song for our quiet little town." Hence, Elderly Woman. And then of course came the big surprise. I saw later on the setlist that it was marked Immortality/Black/Nothingman - which meant Ed (I presume) had three choices. And he chose Nothingman. No one seemed to recognise the rarity of this song, but nonetheless it was well received, and the band played a wonderful version of it, too. I don't overly like the song on record, but on this night it took on a new dimension. As my friend pointed out when we were leaving the arena, it is one of Pearl Jam's greatest strengths in that they can make almost any song sound good.
After this came another round of guitar changes, and when Mike picked up his sunburst Les Paul I predicted State of Love and Trust. A moment later he walked centre-stage to confer with Eddie and Jeff, and I saw where his fingers were placed on the fretboard, and it was indeed to be State of Love and Trust. Eddie said something along the lines of, "This is the old State of Love and Trust," as the band kicked in, and the song itself was amazing. Jeff got a couple of serious leaps in, and the rest of the band smiled at each other throughout.
But the biggest smiles (and cheers from the crowd) were kept for the set-closer, Alive. It was for me a fairly standard version, but I am not the one to comment because throughout the song I was being inundated by crowd-surfers. Consequently I spent most of the song with my hands over my head, ducking under a security guard and peering up at the stage around the side of his body.
At the end of the song (complete with long rock ending) Eddie said goodnight, the band put down their instruments and threw their picks into the crowd, and quit the stage. The audience immediately began a chant of Eddie, then Pearl Jam, and then We Want More. I attempted to pull my shorts back up. Both efforts seemed to be exercises in futility, until suddenly the band again took to the stage, Eddie coming up to the mic to announce that they had spent the break trying to work out which song best summed up the mood of the evening, and they had settled upon "this one." Which turned out to be Go. Much like in Melbourne, with some nice dancing from Eddie thrown in. Then came Once, which after a brief hiatus in earlier 1995 seems to be making a reappearance on Pearl Jam's setlists these days. Now I THINK it was during this song (altho I honestly cannot remember), Eddie made his big run across the stage. It was obvious to tell he was drunk (besides the beers, my friends claimed he was drinking from a bottle of red wine), but he came thundering across in front of the band, skipping and jumping over the monitors and pedals, from stage-left to stage-right. He then stood in front of us, put his hand to his face like he was shielding himself from the sun, and peered out into the crowd. Every-one cheered, of course, and Eddie stood there for a moment before running back to the mic.
After Once he thanked us for the night, and said, "This is our Last Exit." Leading to the song. Strangely placed in terms of where Pearl Jam used to play it, but nonetheless a fitting position if you actually consider the lyrics and sentiment of the song. Oh well. At least they're mixing a few things up now. :o)
After Last Exit finished, the band again left the stage. There was a brief pause, while the roadies tightened the drums and changed guitars, and the crowd yelled and continued to crowd surf (how you can do it when there's not even any music is beyond me).
Then came a part which is a little contentious. I have read that Eddie came out and sat behind the drums, but no-one I've talked to agrees with this. We all think it was a roadie who appeared, but the view of the drums was somewhat obscured from where we stood, so it could well have been Eddie. It was just whoever it was, he certainly did not seem as confident as Eddie (particularly a DRUNK Eddie) would have been. He began with a very simple rock beat, to which the crowd cheered, then stopped in apparent embarrassment. At some prompting from side-stage (where Stone was also trying to push Jack out onto the stage for some reason) the drumming started again. This time it was the beat that was played at 4/3/94 Atlanta, after Once. No-one except me and my friend knew this, however, but at least we cheered as loudly as we could. Again tho, the drummer gave up in embarrassment, pausing long enough to hit Jack's garbage-can cymbal. At any rate, whether it was Eddie or not, it was a funny little interlude, and one Stone made light of when he returned to the stage to say, "You'd prefer Jack, right?"
The band then launched into the final encore, which was of course Yellow Ledbetter. Now I know that you people in America are sick of this song, but I must say that I've never heard it live before (the last Adelaide show was closed with Indifference), and it was truly amazing. Jeff sat on his amps, Eddie stood quietly at the mic, Stone kept to his side of the stage. The focal point was, quite naturally, Mike. At the end of the song the rest of the band simply walked off, with Jeff and Eddie staying sidestage to watch Mike wrap the song up. He threw in a whole bunch of amazing little riffs and notes that makes a mockery of mere mortals like me ever trying to learn the guitar, then stepped back and took off his guitar and walked away. And that was it. Pearl Jam.
I don't know which of the two concerts I have been to was the better one. I personally think that the 1995 shows were the best in terms of length and song content - 3/17/95 in Melbourne is almost the perfect Pearl Jam concert for me (although I don't have the luxury of most of their concerts on tape, so my opinion is somewhat biased). Last night there were no long jams to speak of, such as had been in Rearviewmirror, Porch, Alive and Blood like last time.
But last night can hardly be faulted. Everyone was incredible, from Jack's amazing drumming to Eddie's voice which showed no signs of the alleged problems being encountered during this tour. Whatever the case, it doesn't matter which of the two shows was better. Both of them still stand head and shoulders above any other band I've ever seen. It is a real pity that Pearl Jam tour as infrequently as they do, because there is little doubt in my mind that they are if not the biggest, then most certainly the best band in the world today.
© Daniel McCarthy ... used with permission