May 21, 2010
Madison Square Garden
It certainly seems as if Pearl Jam have mellowed in recent years. They’ve started making videos again. They’ve aligned themselves with the likes of Target, iTunes, and even the makers of Rock Band. Heck, I bought my ticket through Ticketmaster, the big, evil, corporate monster (that could get even bigger after their proposed merger with Live Nation) that Pearl Jam once accused of being a monopoly.
For fans who remember when “Ten” was a new release (circa 1991 – sorry if I made you feel old), and appreciate the raw, angry sound of “Vs.” the sight of Eddie Vedder performing a solo acoustic mini-set while accompanied by a string quartet during last night’s show at Madison Square Garden was probably jarring. However, that didn’t mean that Pearl Jam had forgotten how to rock and roll. With a setlist that contained a good mix of old favorites, as well as songs off their latest album, Backspacer, Pearl Jam played a raucous and crowd-pleasing show that turned into a gigantic karaoke party with Vedder often letting the fans sing the words he had made famous over the years. However, these fans weren’t just singing along to the classics, such as “Even Flow,” “Alive,” “Jeremy,” “Do the Evolution,” or “Animal.” They were even singing along to lesser known songs, like “Crazy Mary” and “Down,” as well as covers of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” and the Ramones’ “I Believe in Miracles.”
Indeed, the sheer number of hardcore fans in the audience seemed to validate Pearl Jam’s decision to short-circuit their seemingly inevitable march towards juggernaut status after 1994’s “Vitalogy.” During their “wilderness years” in the late-90s and early 00’s, Pearl Jam seemed content on being the world’s largest cult band, and their anti-commercial behavior bordered on the self-destructive. However, it also had the effect of keeping the band together by allowing them to avoid the pratfalls of fame that had claimed many of their comrades from Seattle. Kurt Cobain committed suicide rather than deal with the demands of being the biggest rock star in the world. Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, whose death paved the way for Pearl Jam, was cut down before he had a chance to fulfill his potential. Layne Staley of Alice in Chains fell victim to drugs just like Cobain and Wood. Soundgarden didn’t fall victim to drugs, but to egos and personality clashes (although they are getting back together this year).
By concentrating on touring rather than playing the music video and CD-single game, Pearl Jam consolidated their fan base, thereby ensuring that bandwagon jumpers and fair-weather fans would be held to a minimum. Not like there was much of a bandwagon to jump on. None of their last four albums have gone platinum in the United States; indeed their last recording to reach that status was Rearviewmirror, their greatest hits album.
However, shiny awards are not necessarily an indicator of success, and Pearl Jam have never been about that. They’ve been about writing good songs, connecting with their fans, making statements, and breaking new ground. Mostly, they’ve been about going against the grain. Not many bands would have survived disconnecting itself from MTV (back when they played videos, at least) while taking on Ticketmaster. Pearl Jam survived because of their iconoclasm, and only now seem willing to embrace the trappings of fame. They’ve done their own evolution, seemingly leaving their former selves behind.
Maybe the main reason is that Pearl Jam just don’t seem that angry anymore. Even if they were, it would be a hard sell, what with their millions of dollars in the bank, legions of devoted fans, and (at least in Vedder’s case) supermodel girlfriends. Last night’s show was devoid of political statements, which is a rarity for them. After all, Vedder once scrawled “PRO-CHOICE” on his arm during an MTV Unplugged performance and the bands previous two albums were littered with songs about George W. Bush and the Iraq War.
Instead, last night’s show was more about having fun and rewarding the fans. Vedder seemed jovial, joking around with the crowd and while telling a funny story about how a driver almost got side-swiped by a taxi after he slowed down to congratulate Vedder on a great show the previous night in Newark. “Hey Eddie, great show!” the driver yelled before turning to the taxi driver and yelling: ” F— you!” With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he introduced the aforementioned string quartet as “the only qualified musicians on stage.” Obviously, that wasn’t the case as the other band members more than carried their weight. Mike McCready was his usual manic self, unleashing blistering solos and running around the stage while interacting with fans. Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard anchored things, allowing Matt Cameron to demonstrate his virtuosity on the drums. Usually a stoic presence in the background, Gossard got his chance to shine, singing lead vocals on “Mankind” and playing an extended solo during “Porch.” Even quasi-member Boom Gaspar got his moment in the sun, showing off his skills on a long keyboard solo in “Crazy Mary” and on the opening bars of “Love Reign O’er Me.” The fact that the fans knew to chant “Boom” after he was finished showed just how many hardcore fans were in attendance. The fair-weather fans were probably wondering why everyone else was booing.
Pearl Jam have evolved into respected elder statesmen of rock. It’s appropriate that Pearl Jam ended their rendition of “Love Reign O’er Me” with a belated birthday shout-out to Pete Townshend. They didn’t follow Townshend’s words about hoping to die before getting old the way Cobain did. Then again, neither did Townshend. Instead, Pearl Jam stuck around went from angry band desperate to avoid any appearance of selling out to one that embraced fame, but only on their own terms. As Eddie Vedder would say: “It’s evolution, baby.”
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
I Am Mine
Force of Nature
I Got Id
Do the Evolution
Love, Reign O’er Me
State of Love and Trust
I Believe In Miracles