By Chris Moore:
It is far too easy to sit down the day after a concert experience and glorify the memory of the past night.
What follows is, to the best of my ability, devoid of exaggeration.
Band of Horses opened the night with a solid forty-five minute set. I enjoyed listening to their songs; it was all Band-style rock and vocals, if a little less rough-shod than Robertson, Helm, and company would have preferred. Ben Bridwell and his band sufficiently caught my interest for their new album, Infinite Arms, which will be released this coming Tuesday.
This all being acknowledged, they are no Pearl Jam.
The majority of ticket-holders apparently agreed, as more than three quarters of the seats went unfilled until about ten minutes before the headliners came onstage. By the time Matt Cameron, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, and Eddie Vedder took the stage, nearly every seat in the house was filled, including the majority of seats to the side of and behind the stage.
And when a band can fill seats with people willing to stare at their backs for most of the concert, that’s saying something.
Even from my vantage point at Vedder’s nine o’clock high up in the second to last row of the XL (nee Civic) Center in Hartford, CT, the show was a phenomenal experience, although it didn’t begin that way. For some reason, the sound was softer and muddier than it should have been for the first several songs.
I had a nightmarish vision of having to listen to thousands of half-drunken Pearl Jam fans sing the hits while one of the greatest rock bands of all time labored away below me, in my vision but outside my hearing. For the first four songs or so, this fear was realized as I had to struggle to hear Vedder’s baritone amidst shouting fans who clearly knew the words every bit as well as he did — and wanted to lend their vocals. Even McCready and Gossard’s guitar work was buried, only Ament’s bass and Cameron’s stellar drumming standing out clearly the entire evening. In between songs, Vedder sounded like he was speaking into a drive-thru speaker in a foreign language.
Then, like someone flipped a switch, Vedder’s voice suddenly came through loud and clear and the instruments all fell into place into the mix. From this point on, the concert was pure energy and utter perfection.
This was a concert to compete with the best concert experiences of my lifetime (and admittedly limited experience). There was all the instrumental prowess of Bob Dylan’s band with an ability to translate studio tracks to live performances that rivals — and perhaps surpasses — that of bands like America and Wilco. The set list was among the most well-balanced I’ve seen, up there with Brian Wilson’s recent concerts which regularly and beautifully draw from throughout his storied career. My only complaint concerning the set list — and I am most certainly going to be alone on this one — is its dismissal of Binaural (2000) and Riot Act (2002), which boast some of my favorite tracks in their catalog.
In the course of more than two hours of pure rock fury, the band played the first seven tracks of last year’s Backspacer, folding these new songs into their repetoire like they’ve been playing them for a decade. I’m at a loss to name just one that stood out — I think “Got Some” first because I love it, but “The Fixer” was heart-pounding, catchy madness, and by the time “Johnny Guitar” rolled out, it was like Vedder and company had been unleashed. In the first encore, they played a breath-taking version of the ninth track, “Speed of Sound,” noting that they hadn’t really played it before, at least not to their liking. Gossard’s acoustic work was just right, and I can honestly assert that this was better than the album version.
This is not to say that the veteran Pearl Jam fans went unappeased, as Ten (1991), Vs. (1993), and Vitalogy (1994) were all well-represented. Hits like “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and “Jeremy” were received as full-audience sing-a-longs, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear my favorite deep track on Ten, “Porch,” in all its angry glory. “Daughter” and, less predictably, “Dissident” were played, but it wasn’t until their transcendent take on “Indifference” that I was blown away. This was their second to last performance of the evening, with the lights up and the audience clapping for the entire song. I’m proud to say I was one of the few that didn’t taper off in the middle, and even though I questioned if I was supposed to stop and my arms were screaming for me to relax, I wouldn’t have for the world.
Although Vitalogy is among my least favorite albums in the Pearl Jam catalog, it certainly has some of the best material they have ever released. When they kicked off “Corduroy,” the crowd responded with the same sort of energetic approval I’ve rarely seen, the same as when Dylan finally reaches for a harmonica these days. I was again pleasantly surprised to hear them roll into my favorite Vitalogy deep track, “Satan’s Bed.” There’s something poignant about the in-your-face defiance of typical American indicators of success and image in this song, heard most clearly in the vocals and instrumental stop on the line “I’ll never suck Satan’s dick.” Before “Nothingman,” Vedder dedicated the song to a young couple holding hands that he had seen on a street corner before the show, noting how profound that sort of affection is, as though it’s all they need in the world for all their days to come. He referred to “Nothingman” as a cautionary tale to those who would forgo or forget the importance of love.
Another of my favorites, Yield (1998) alum “Do the Evolution,” was played, but it was admittedly overshadowed by their beautiful delivery of “Low Light,” one of my girlfriend Nicole’s favorites (her night was complete, as she had been hoping for “Johnny Guitar” and this one).
The night all wrapped up with a second encore closing cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” a la Hendrix, a song and an arrangement that Dylan uses often in his own encores to this day.
The music was brilliantly performed, the energy in the filled-to-capacity XL Center was unsurpassed, and even from the nosebleeds, it was clear that this was a concert that I will always remember as one of the best I’ve ever seen. That I almost considered saving the money and not going to see Pearl Jam is beyond embarrassing; two decades later, they are one of the most impressive live bands going, most likely due the the fact that they are truly a band. As much as Vedder’s personality and stage presence drives their image, each member of the band contributes to the writing of the songs and has an integral part of their sound.
As if to remind us of the fact that he prefers to share the spotlight, Vedder rode out the instrumental portion of “Porch” by using the reflection from his electric guitar, held above his head, to shine a beacon on each and every portion of the stadium, momentarily blinding each fan with brilliance — a literal gesture, and a fitting metaphor for the evening.