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Don't it make you smile? Following Pearl Jam to Europe

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I’ve attended my fair share of Pearl Jam gigs since my first one in Charlotte, NC on October 4th, 1996. When I made the decision to follow the first three dates of their 2014 European run, it made my 38th, 39th, and 40th in my long-running count of shows attended. However, in the larger scheme of things, I’m a lightweight. I’ve met people along my journeys across the United States, Canada, and Europe that have been to literally hundreds. Why would anyone do this? It’s simple. Every night is completely different. Different songs that always span what is now their 24th year of existence. They aren’t afraid to take a chance and play the obscure deep cuts, and they are never afraid to revisit the hits that made them one of the greatest rock bands to ever take the stage. In 40 shows, I’ve always been surprised at least once by something each and every single time. That’s why you keep going back time and again. You do it to be surprised. You do it to share the same emotion with thousands of other people simultaneously. And most importantly, you do it to be touched and inspired.

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This adventure began in London where Pearl Jam wasn’t even slated to play the UK until the following month. But did you know it’s often cheaper to fly from the US to London and then work your way around Europe? Many times it is. But it wasn’t a London without Pearl Jam. If you’re ever in London and love rock music and beer, then there is bar called Far Rockaway that will satisfy both cravings. The place is covered from floor to ceilings with rock memorabilia, and in particular, Pearl Jam. The walls are lined with Pearl Jam’s silk-screened gig posters throughout the years, the shelves behind the bar are fully stocked with vinyl LPs to spin in the bar, and there is even a neon Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam’s front man) sign on the window out front glowing into the street like a lightsaber rounding the corner. There’s something comforting about standing at urinal, looking up, and enjoying the artwork from Pearl Jam’s “Yield” while relieving yourself.

The first show of the 2014 European tour was June 16th in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, a short train ride connecting through Paris or a quick plane ride from London. I arrived in Amsterdam the day before the show. In most cases, when Pearl Jam plays a city, fans organize a pre-party at a local bar or restaurant where fans get together and auction off fan-donated memorabilia as a raffle with the proceeds going to charity. Amsterdam was no exception the night before. The bar was called ‘t Schuim. The beer was hot and skunky, but there was still a robust cast of characters in attendance. It was a virtual who’s who of the fan club’s (10 Club) online forums as always. Another interesting thing happening simultaneously was Pearl Jam had set up an official merchandise store with exclusive items across town at the Kallenbach Gallery near the park. “Why not check it out?” I thought. Have you ever seen the “South Park” episode when the boys go to the carnival and ride the ‘line ride?’ It’s just a big long line with nothing at the end. That’s what the line seemed like at this place. It was literally hundreds of people deep all anxious to get inside to get their hands on limited edition exclusive Pearl Jam merchandise whether it be a poster, t-shirt, and even a keychain (why no old-school lunchboxes with a thermos were available is beyond me). Being in the ‘line ride’ for multiple hours was kind of like a fan pre-party without seats or bar stools. The place was filled with such nice people from all over the world who all have a Pearl Jam story and are always interested in hearing yours and sharing theirs.

Why did the line take so long? It was easy to figure out once we finally reached the entrance to the Gallery and saw what was transpiring inside. Have you ever seen those people in stores or in a merchandise line such as this that have to hold every item in their hands, inspect it, and hold t-shirts up in front of them as if it is any indication whatsoever as to what it will actually look like on their bodies? Yep, those people were there. I watched this one older gentleman through the window (yes a man, not a woman) go through every single shirt, hold it up in front of him for his wife to inspect and critique, before finally making a decision 12 minutes after I actually started timing him. It’s a t-shirt. Make a decision and move on. So if anyone there was perplexed by the line, that’s your answer. That’s all I have to say about that.

The day of the first show of the three I was to attend had arrived. 6 months of anticipation had come to fruition. I was up early. I was ready to actually find the venue, the Ziggo Dome. However, I couldn’t do so before stopping for the world’s best bowl of tomato soup. It’s in this little café down a short flight of stairs right by the Anne Frank House. I always stop in there every time I’m in Amsterdam.

Being that my Dutch is about as good as another “Paranormal Activity” sequel, I was expecting quite an adventure getting there. However, I was pleasantly surprised that it was a quick Metro ride from Amsterdam Centraal to the outskirts of the city far away from red-lit windows of the city center.

The Ziggo Dome was a short walk from the Metro station to the other side of the Ajax Football stadium. It was around 2pm and the line to pick up Pearl Jam fan club (10 Club) tickets and general admission wristbands was about 100 yards deep. Not at all interested in riding the ‘line ride’ again and not wanting to tangle with the what had to be irritable people that had been waiting since the previous day to get the best possible spot inside the Ziggo Dome, I elected to relax at an outdoor bar/café right behind the line and watch the entire frenzy take place. There was quite a cast of characters that had this exact same idea, so it became an all out pre-party. There was the guy from Chicago, who really dug my “Lookin’ California and Feelin’ Minnesota” shirt, the German guy who almost urinated in the sink because the washroom was too small to fit everyone, and some guy whose wallet had more stuff in it than George Costanza’s on “Seinfeld.” (maybe he had one of those “redeem this coupon at any Orlando area Exxon to receive your free Save the Tigers poster” vouchers in there).

An hour before show time, I had to bite the bullet and get on board the ‘line ride’ to pick up the tickets. However, by this time of the evening everything was snappy. In and out, and straight inside the venue. My first impression of the Ziggo Dome was that it appeared more like an upscale bar than an indoor coliseum type venue. It was clean, organized, and they had a live DJ spinning Nirvana amongst all of the Heineken vendors. If anyone has never been to the Ziggo Dome and thinking about going, I hope you like Heineken. After all you are in the Netherlands and the Heineken Brewery is very close to the venue.

As I got situated with the environment I looked at my phone and suddenly saw that the Gaslight Anthem was having a fan club pre-sale for tickets for their show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC in September. I immediately had to drop everything and spend a few minutes getting tickets to that show. Done and done, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The general admission floor area wasn’t hard to find. It was a set of massive doors. What else would those be for? Walking into that area was again a who’s who of fans, recognizing several people from either the pre-party, social media, or the online forums. We found ourselves about half way deep into the general admission area about 15 minutes before the band was due to take the stage. I met a couple of Russian guys who were a bit apprehensive to talk to me. Apparently in Russia, their media and right-wing side of their politics is trying to resurrect the Cold War as well for no reason, just like in America. So after chatting for a few minutes, we went from solving the Cold War to immediately singing Pearl Jam songs together as they took the stage a few minutes past 8pm as we were wrapping up our geopolitical discussion concluding mass media manipulation and right-wing hate propaganda weren’t as powerful as the shared emotion and peaceful elation of the music and poetry gracing our ears.

The audience is what makes a Pearl Jam show memorable because the band feeds off of the audience. When Pearl Jam performs, it isn’t about them. It’s about every single person in that venue or stadium. It’s a shared experience. These are ‘our’ songs. The audience in Amsterdam was to this point, one of the loudest and most excited I had ever witnessed. The only comparable thing would be a northeast US audience, like New York or Philadelphia. It must give this band a great feeling to know that at any time their singer can just stop, step back, and the audience can take over lead vocals on any song at any time. And Eddie Vedder does that. It’s always easy to see in his eyes how still after 20 + years, the audience response is still a bit overwhelming to him.

What makes the Ziggo Dome different from venues in the Unites States is that they don’t want you to miss anything. If you need a bathroom break, you can hear the music. If you need to go the concession vendors, you can hear the music. And if you don’t want to go to the concession stands, there are people with kegs of Heineken strapped onto their backs with a tap walking through the crowd filling up everyone’s cups (not for free). How awesome is that?

The set continued into a perfect mix of radio hits and rarities. ‘Hits’ such as “Sirens” and lost gems such as “Light Years” and “Comeback” were highlights for me. As a group of Belgians struck on chatter with me in between songs, I added more singing neighbors to the mix just in time for “Jeremy” and “Betterman.” One of the undisputed highlights of that set was the second ever live performance of “Sleeping By Myself,” which sounded phenomenal as Vedder’s ukulele echoed about the room. Amsterdam night one ended with bang nearly 3 hours after it began. As I often am when exiting a Pearl Jam concert, I found myself trying to process everything that just happened and put it into words. I was losing my voice a bit from the endless sing-a-longs with my neighbors, my feet were weary, and we still had night two to look forward to the following evening. It was time to get back on the Metro to the city centre.

It was packed like the 6 train in New York after a Yankee game. Wall to wall people packed like sardines, but all happy and elated because we had just all been to the same place. But in every crowd, there is always one douchebag. Today’s douchebag contestant was none other than an American. Looking like he just walked out of an Abercrombie & Fitch store in his perfectly patch-worked tank-top, he complained about the ‘foreigners’ he didn’t like and that nobody wanted to hang out with him. I mean, you do the math. Being that he was talking about this very loudly to the people next to him, everyone on the car was shaking their heads and laughing. He attempted to get the people next to him to go to a bar with him. “It’s on me,” he said. I felt obliged to yell out in the car, “Hey everybody, drinks are on this guy when we get to the city!” This was met was a roar of laughter and applause. I had done my job for the evening.

I slept until 1pm the day after to be as rested as possible for night two. Just like any morning of a Pearl Jam concert, I had no idea what to expect from night two. A greatest hits set? A b-sides and rarities set? Who knows? All bets are off. A return trip to the far reaches of the Ziggo Dome couldn’t happen without going to have another round of the world’s best tomato soup and a latte at my favorite little café. After fueling up, it was time to head back to Amsterdam Centraal for the Metro ride to the outskirts of the city.
There were no fan club tickets for night two, which meant there was no outrageous line outside. However it was again time to people-watch at the bar by the venue just like the previous day. As Pearl Jam hits blasted in the bar, I again met more fans. There was the British guy who was glad Juicy J wasn’t playing, the Dutch couple that shared a table with us because they place was so packed, and some Philly folks.

I wasn’t holding general admission floor tickets for night two, but what I did have was side-stage seats three rows up from lead guitarist Mike McCready. It was virtually the same seats I had on October 19th, 2013 in Brooklyn, NY. Surrounding me was quite a cast of characters. We had the people who didn’t want to be there and were sitting down eating pretzels, a group of Islamic Fundamentalists in berkas, and a bio-chemist Tool fan. Who was I going to sing with? I was going to have to lead this whole section, and I did. Night two brought out some of my favorites from “Getaway,” to “Marker in the Sand,” to a cover of “Rain” by the Beatles. It was musical heaven. However, nothing prepared me for the words “Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb.” Pink Floyd songs seem to have been made for Eddie Vedder to sing. It wasn’t the first time they had done Pink Floyd’s “Mother,’ but it was the first time I had witnessed it in person. It’s one of those moments that gives one chills and make the little hairs on your arm raise up and dance around like crops in the wind along I-70 in Kansas.

I could have left the arena happy after that, but I would have missed the knockout punches of “State of Love and Trust,” “Alive,” “Black,” “Blood,” and “Yellow Ledbetter” to name a few. My voice was completely shot. It sounded like I had a combination of the flu and laryngitis. I still, with little no voice got everyone on the Metro laughing again by asking to the whole car “Where the hell are we? Let’s take a poll!”

Getting up the next morning to catch a short plane ride to Milan, Italy was absolute hell. There is not much worse than having to deal with a bunch of airport crap first thing in the morning. Once clearing security, arguing with, and calling out Easy Jet regarding their baggage hustle, I was finally safe in the Schiphol airport lounges by the gate where I was able to buy a carton of milk much to my surprise. There was really only one plane leaving from that area so when everyone gathered, I began to notice, were all Pearl Jam fans. The majority of the plane to Milan was filled with many people I had met over the past couple of days in Amsterdam, even the Pearl Jam radio guy. Had I not been so sleepy, I had considered starting a sing-along on the plane. But then again, I had no voice to do so either.

Landing in Milan is much like landing in Rome. You are a good hour away from the city still, which is longer than the plane ride. So after another nap on the Malpensa Express train into the city, I was finally getting my bearings straight from the previous two nights. We had that evening and the whole next day to be ready for Pearl Jam’s Milan show on June 20th.

Having never been to Milan, it was important to see Castello Sforzesco, the Duomo, and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie on that following day off. Being that we had everything pre-arranged, it was no problem to fit all of that in. I even snuck a few pictures of the famous Da Vinci fresco (no flash of course). After a full day of sights, it was time to get back into Pearl Jam mode. A fan-organized pre-party was being held at a bar called Rock n’ Roll Milan complete with a Pearl Jam tribute band. This was going to be interesting, so after dinner at Biif, we summoned an Uber to get us there.

Rock n’ Roll Milan; how do I describe this place. OK, awesome. It’s a hard rock bar filled with memorabilia. No, not the Hard Rock Café tourist trap. This was a real bar filled with real people. This place was two floors packed with Pearl Jam fans wall to wall. Everyone was in the house. Greece, Germany, Bulgaria, Italy, France, the UK, and of course Baltimore, Philly, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. My friend with me, who had just first experienced Pearl Jam a couple of days prior in Amsterdam was pretty amazed at how this fan base comes together and is so friendly. He compared it to the best tailgate party of all time. “At football games,” he said “everyone stays in their little group and don’t communicate outside of the group. At Pearl Jam, everyone wants to talk to everyone. It’s pretty amazing.” He was right. Even at a party like this everyone has something in common, the music. Every single person there has a story, and they want to know you’re story. “How the hell did you end up in Milan?” “Well, it’s an interesting story…..”
Downstairs at Rock n’ Roll Milan was easily over 100 degrees while the Mighty Dogs played Pearl Jam song after Pearl Jam song, with the whole place helping them out. I’m usually not a fan of tribute bands at all, but these guys were great. They weren’t trying to sound just like the band in which they were paying tribute, they were just doing the songs with their own spin and candor. It was a very good night that ended with meeting more fans, a Swedish couple, on the street far from the bar and chatting with them a while. The next day at Stadio San Siro was going to be her first Pearl Jam experience and she wanted to hear them play “Green Disease.” I countered with either “Long Road” or “It’s OK.” It’s a wish that would come true in less than 24 hours.

It’s show day. My third and final show of this small European run for me. From looking at the map, the stadium was a long way from the city centre. Walking was out of the question, but the hop-on hop-off tourist bus did stop there. We hopped-on at Piazza Castello and took the hour-long ride to the outright massive San Siro Stadium. This place was a bohemeth. Just peering up at it from outside was intimidating. We could have fit 5 to 7 Ziggo Domes in that place. As we walked all the way around the stadium in awe through a maze of food trucks and bootleg merchandise, I finally found the fan club ticket pickup. At the moment I picked the tickets up, it just happened to be the exact moment that the venue let the fan club in the stadium early.

There were a few hundred of us that walked into the empty stadium and just had to pause and look around in awe. “This place is sold out,” I thought in my head. This is going to be insane in a few hours. Allow me to give you a lay of the land on the ground level of San Siro. The outer rim was lined with porta-johns, beers lines (Heineken again), and hot dogs they advertised were better than in America. I do have to address the size of these beer kegs. They were bigger than my Honda Accord. Now that’s a beer keg! The weather was mild, because most of the stadium was shaded. I sat down in the middle of the stadium and just relaxed and met people. There was a calm vibe in the air that I knew would turn to outright frantic jubilation at some point at the edge of dusk.

The Italian futbol team was to play a World Cup at 6pm (the concert set to begin at 8pm). The game was displayed on a series of jumbo-tron screens so they could be seen anywhere in the stadium. Timed perfectly before the match began, Eddie Vedder came out to the stage and greeted the crowd that was already in attendance by playing an acoustic version of “Porch.” Of course the crowd there went nuts and he ended as soon as the match commenced. As the porta-john line got longer, it was evident that San Siro was filling up. As 8pm came, and the first notes of “Release” circled the stadium like Native American spirits being summoned around a campfire by a shaman, the capacity crowd’s voices raised from a whisper to a scream to help Vedder deliver the lines “I’ll hold the pain; release me!”

I’ve been in big crowds before, but never in a venue before where the sounds of people singing were bouncing off and echoing back and forth across the stadium. It made Red Rocks sound like a cell phone speaker. This was followed by a trio of slower tunes “Nothingman,” “Sirens,” and “Black.” Talk about an emotional way to start a concert. Geez! Bam, bam, bam, bam! The tempo quickly picked up to a frantic pace with “Go,” “Do the Evolution,” “Corduroy,” “Lightning Bolt,” and “Mind Your Manners.” One extreme to the other.

I was constantly amazed being in front so close to the stage and looking back to see that many people behind me having such a great time and building memories of their own and building stories, the same as me. “Memories like fingerprints” so to say. Sometimes you have to stop and if for only 3 seconds and remember where you are and how awe-inspring it is you’re sharing this moment with countless thousands of other people.

The set was packed full of radio hits such as “Given to Fly” and “Even Flow,” but also contained the not as popular gems “Untitled,” “Sad,” and “Setting Forth” from Eddie Vedder’s solo record “Into the Wild.” All that aside, the height of the set came at the end of “Daughter.” No, I’m not referring to the 15 seconds in which Eddie Vedder sang part of “Let it Go” from “Frozen,” I’m talking about what that led to – the cover of Dead Moon’s “It’s OK,” which I had wished for the previous evening when talking to the Swedish couple on the street. Those 4 chords to me represent a sense of hope, a sense of overcoming obstacles, and most importantly a sense of uncontrolled joy. “This is my chance, this is my life and my opening hour. This is my choice, this is my voice there may be no tomorrow. This is my plea, this is my need, this is my time for standing free. This is my step, this is my depth in a world demanding of me. But It’s OK, It’s OK; you don’t have to run and hide away. It’s OK, It’s OK; you know I’ll love you anyway.” Those lyrics have bestowed a kaleidoscope of feelings and emotions in me since I first heard Pearl Jam perform them in person in Virginia Beach, VA in August of 2000. Any chance to hear that song live is always going to be the highlight of the evening for me.

The epic set at San Siro came to a close with an 8-song knockout from “Jeremy,” to Spin the Black Circle,” to “Porch,” to “Alive,” to “Rocking in the Free World,” to the screeching lullaby of “Yellow Ledbetter.”

What do you say after seeing that? I didn’t really have a word. I still don’t. I just can’t wait until the next time we meet. I’m sure to be surprised again by something. My somewhat insignificant 40 shows attended from 1996 to 2014 have been a musical journey filled with great stories, inspiring stories, and all filled with some of the greatest people a guy can meet. I’m simply a spot along that road with no particular destination in mind. Jack Kerouac would be proud. Bruce Springsteen would be proud; because I’m a tramp that was born to run. And the journey has just begun.

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