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Off She Goes To Her First Ever Pearl Jam Concert (Or Four)

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So I am a little obsessive, I’ll admit that right up front. I decided to go to my first ever Pearl Jam concert a couple weeks ago and it sort of rolled into four shows, instead of one. Yeah, yeah, I know. Whatev. Here’s my review, of them all.

First of all, Pearl Jam shows are not for the faint of heart, let me tell you. If you’re not in good shape, emotionally and physically, don’t go. If you don’t love rock and roll, don’t go. If you’re kind of a pissy “I paid for this seat and I want to sit in it, get out of my space” kind of person, don’t go. You won’t have a good time, and you just won’t get it, trust me. You’ll have to sit down, and then you won’t be able to see, because every one else is standing, and then even if you suck it up and decide to stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone else, if you can’t jump for two hours straight, forget it, because you won’t be able to see if you just stand still. It would help to know the lyrics to the songs, too, because it is basically a sing along, and with thousands of fans jumping up and down all around you and singing at the top of their lungs and Eddie Vedder mumbling into the microphone, it will be next to impossible to make out the lyrics at the show.

And of course there is also the whole ritualistic sacred hand motion thing you’ve got to learn on the fly, and stuff, so best to know the music and the lyrics ahead of time so you won’t get a headache at the show trying to figure out what the hell is going on. (Ritualistic hand motions might be overstating it, you say? I think not. EVERYONE does it. “I will walk with my hands bound,” in “Garden,” sing really loud and cross your hands at the wrist and hold them up for Eddie to see. During “Do The Evolution,” “there’s my church, I sing in the choir, hallelujah, hallelujah,” means both hands over head, shake shake shake along with Eddie like you’re in the Gospel choir, and so on. There are many, and it’s all part of the Pearl Jam Experience.) And speaking of that, let me say this. It is The Pearl Jam Experience. It’s not just “going to a show” (Or, in my case, showZ). It’s waaaay beyond that. Oooh yeah. Waaay beyond.

Pearl Jam puts on such a perfect spectacle of rock and roll, it could almost be a parody. This is to say, it has all the ingredients to be rendered trite. There’s the loud, fast-paced straight ahead rock and roll music, of course. There’s the powerful front man antics and leadership of Eddie Vedder, who knows how to work a crowd like nobody’s business. He does back bends while hanging off the mike stand and singing in his earth shaking baritone, strutting the length of the stage pressing the flesh, climbing and crawling on monitors and amps, pulling unsuspecting worshippers on stage and dancing with them, or handing them his guitar and letting them play along. He jumps, spits, sweats, spins, screams, laughs, cries and sings like his life depends on it.

He smokes like a goddamn chimney on stage and swigs red wine straight from the bottle (which during one of the shows I saw was even hurled in anger in the general direction of the roadie in charge of the now clearly non-working fan at Eddie’s feet.) There’s the ripping guitar solos by Mike McCready, who has a personal and private relationship with his amp like any good lead rock and roll guitarist should but also with his audience.

Mike seems to have a side role as the conductor of the audience, often raising his hands a split second before Eddie’s vocal calls for it. He also is continuously scattering guitar picks by the handful to the outstretched hands of the hanging-off-the-edge-of-the-stage crowd like manna from heaven (his nickname among the crowd: "The Master"). There’s the massive drumming by Matt Cameron, formerly of Sound Garden, and several sets of sticks hurled into the audience at the end of every show. There’s the impressive and well-timed leaping into the air by Eddie, and Jeff, and Mike. And the curious stalwartness of Stone, and the awkward “I don’t really fit in here but what the hell, I’m here”-ness of Boom (Whom apparently Eddie picked up along the way surfing in Hawaii? That’s what I heard at the shows.) It is all there, all the rock and roll trappings. Hell, there’s even a light show. Laughable, right? Trite. Overplayed! Done.

But …none of these descriptors could be more wrong. This is not a parody, or a joke, or anything even close to trite. In fact, it couldn’t be more real. This is the genuine article, folks; This is The Real Deal. Rock and roll is here to stay; yes it is, as long as Pearl Jam is around. This, THIS, is a rock and roll show. Full stop. First of all, there’s the palpable camaraderie and good feeling you get from the entire band as they smile and nod at each other, and huddle together in various formations throughout the show. They look like they really like each other. They look stoked! To be with each other, and to be playing and to be with … Could it be? … With US. Pearl Jam appears to really, really like their audience. Now this was new, for me, a long suffering Neil Young fan for most of my life. (And yes, long suffering. Do you know how many times I have had “Old Man” sung to me at cocktail parties in a high shakey voice by some asshole who heard I was a rabid Neil Young fan and just didn’t get it? More times than I can count, I assure you, which is either a sad statement on my life or humanity in general, I’m not sure. But also long suffering in terms of being acknowledged in any way whatsoever. Neil doesn’t really acknowledge the audience, you know, unless it is of course to chastise for misbehavior, as famously chronicled in one of his more well known bootlegs, traded as the “Shut Up Asshole” bootleg among his most loyal. But I digress.) Actually, scratch all that. What they look like up there is that they are having the fucking time of their lives, and they bring you along with them.

Pearl Jam is a band with a big heart and a generous spirit. They let you in. It’s HUGE. And it’s the essence of The Pearl Jam Experience. Sure, the music is great; it’s always been great. I was one of the first Pearl Jam fans I knew back in the early '90s, but then I lost track and got busy having babies. Raffi took Eddie’s place in my heart (but just for a little while.)

The music from Ten, the band's first album, still sounds new to me, and many of the songs from that album are still played at their live shows. The songs are easy to sing (if you know the words in advance), and fun as hell. They’re dumb enough to be rock and roll and smart enough to keep you interested. I mean this is music that really, unless you have no soul you cannot help but bounce around and bang your head to. It is an exciting, foot stomping, heart pounding kind of sound. The kind of sound that you heard inside your body kind of non-stop when you were a teenager, even when the radio was off.

And make no mistake, these musicians are world class. Truly, jaw droppingly good drumming by Matt Cameron. Even if you are absolutely tone deaf and have two left feet you could keep the beat and dance with Matt at the drums. He makes you want to BE a drummer. His drumming is massive and masterful and … elegant. That sounds weird, maybe, to say about the drummer of Pearl Jam, but it’s true.

And Eddie. Well. Eddie! Eddie is the person you were pretending to be when you were a teenager pretending to be a rock star in front of the mirror. But the freaky thing is, you get the feeling that EDDIE is just like you, and that he also used to pretend to do all those things in front of his mirror that he is doing in front of you, on stage, right now. Eddie manages to get away with all the rock star antics because he is so unfailingly genuine, so very real, somehow, that it is shattering. Absolutely shattering. He is so unguarded, so open, that it is quite disarming. Quite alarming, even. He is an open soul. He is raw. He is on the outside who everyone who loves rock and roll is on the inside. And all these things that Eddie is come out in his singing. Holy shit. Eddie’s screaming of LOVE at the very end of their cover of “Love Reign O’er me” literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end for a good long while. He was somehow able to convey in that ONE word about 10 different emotions, including, but not limited to, love, passion, desperation, sadness, desire, hurt, loneliness, innocence, anger, pain. You know that feeling?

And Mike McCready uses that electric guitar and his amp feedback to great effect, amazingly filling what is understandably a very gigantic void when Eddie and his gut wrenching soulful singing pause for a breath. Speaking of which, there is little time for pausing for breath here. If this were the rock and roll Olympics, these guys would win a gold medal. They play hard and long and fast, with very few breaks. It’s kind of just like listening to their records. There’s only about that much pause between songs. Which is to say, nearly none. You just breath out at the end of song and yell “YEAH!” and clap and then BAM! It’s the next song already. They don’t give you time to think about anything, the show keeps moving forward all night long.

But it’s more than the great music, fun songs, talented musicians. The live Pearl Jam show, The Pearl Jam Experience, is more than the sum of its parts, somehow. And if you’re willing to open up and let it reign o’er you (haha), it will take you on a ride you won’t soon forget.

The shows I attended on this Pearl Jam East Coast U.S. tour were in Camden, N.J., (the first of the band’s two nights there), Hartford, Conn., and the two final shows of the tour in Mansfield, Mass. And they were all different.

One thing that sets PJ apart from many of its contemporaries is that they truly do mix up the set list. Making it so much more interesting for the, uh, psycho fan who might be going to more than one show. Not only are the shows are different in set list but also in mood, the patter from Eddie is somewhat different from show to show. You feel like you are dealing with a person in real time. Which is, of course, what it all comes down to. Pearl Jam, and Eddie Vedder, make you feel like you are dealing with REAL people, in REAL time. It’s not THEM and YOU, it’s a shared experience. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam manage to make you feel like you are part of THEIR experience, somehow, and what more could a rock and roll fan want than that?

I could go on and on, but I guess the best thing I can say is that I was really sad when it was all over. I was really sad to see them go. Pearl Jam gave me that teenage feeling (apologies to Neko Case) and trust me, I am way on the flip side of teenager. But at those shows, I was right back there, for every single second. Well, until the girl next to me at the last show said “Wow, that’s cool that YOU’RE into Pearl Jam.” Uh … Why is that, I wonder? Do I look too OLD to be a Pearl Jam fan? I just smiled sweetly but I should have said Look, you little fuckwit, I was listening to Pearl Jam before you were even BORN. And, uh, oh yeah. That song that you were telling everyone is your favorite Pearl Jam song? That was written by Pete Townshend who was in a band called The Who, it’s called Love Reign O’er Me, not Love Rains All Over Me, like you keep telling everyone. Grr. (I was, admittedly, a little out of the demographic … Most of the fans seem to be male, and in their 20s. Not a lot of moms. And I was doing SO WELL at the tailgating parties in the parking lot fitting in, until an errant football hit my car for the third time in a row and I said “Hey! One more time and I take away the football.” Uh … Whoops. Who brought their MOM? GAWD.)

At the end of the last show Eddie seemed reluctant to go, grabbing hats and t-shirts that were thrown to him in the final moments, putting them on, throwing them back into the crowd, trying desperately to connect with everyone one last time, an impossible task. Finally, last man standing, he mumbled a few things including “I’ll miss you” as he held a hand up to the crowd and exited stage left. He is so genuine it gives you a lump in your throat to watch him. As he shuffled off, I sent back a silent answer. Thanks for having such a generous heart, Eddie. Thanks for letting us in. I’ll miss you too. I already do.

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About Karen Barry

  • Rusting In Peace

    Karen, You are so funny! Where is that article about the hood ornament you were wearing in NYCity for the CDII tour??? … XOXOX RIP

  • http://www.streamland.tumblr.com Karen

    Hi “Rusting in Peace,” Thanks. I didn’t write an official article about the hood ornament necklace fashion statement, but I did talk about it on the Rust List, so if you read about it there you heard it all. : ) I did write a long series of stories on the Rust List at that time, describing the six nights of Neil Young shows at the United Palace each night when I got home. The last two parts talk specifically about the hood ornament necklace, and you can find them here if you want (actually they’ll be there even if you don’t want to):
    Part One
    Part Two

    thanks for your comment!
    lovekaren

  • Roberta Lasky

    PJ ON SNL 3/14.

  • Pearl Jam cured my midlife crisis blues…

    Hi Karen,

    I LOVED your articles on both Eddie’s solo shows and the Pearl Jam concerts. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to read your writing and I couldn’t agree more with your take on the whole experience of him and them… their effervescent energy and unique ability to be so open and real with their audiences….
    I recently discovered (after dancing to the song “Black” in a pole dancing class) their whole musical legacy via the internet and have watched probably everything out there on you tube – just when my midlife crisis would have grabbed me by the t**ts and stopped me, I have instead become reinfused with a crazy new energy that I can only say is completely inspired by watching them be so UNAFRAID of still rocking the shit out of life. I have NOT seen them live yet, but
    since recently relocating to Portland Oregon, (originally from CT)
    I have decided that driving to Northern California to see the Bridge School Benefit on Oct. 23rd is of the highest priority. If you are planning to go to this show, it would be cool to meet you. Maybe you could help me out with the hand gestures! Take Care,
    VSomoya@hotmail.com

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