There are some cynical souls who complain that rock is dead, and I hope at least one of them got to see Pearl Jam’s marvelous performance during their 2-night run at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on Oct 18th and 19th in support of their 10th studio album Lightning Bolt.
What makes every concert Pearl Jam does unique and special is the fact that they tailor a unique set list every single night for how they are feeling and how they gauge the audience the day of the show. A fan holding a ticket to an upcoming concert knows one thing; they know they don’t have any idea what songs they may hear. That’s what makes a Pearl Jam tour so exciting for the audience. If you go see a pop artist in Los Angeles, then the same artist in New York 6 months later, you are going to witness the exact same thing down to the second. Those concerts are written, choreographed, and planned to precision. Pearl Jam is just 6 guys playing meaningful music with a few lights above them. The show is about the music and the fans rather than the spectacle of the artist’s ego. One thing is certain with every Pearl Jam concert; as an audience member you will be pulled through a virtual color wheel of raw emotions. From love, to anger, to despair, to longing, to jubilation, and tears of joy. Pearl Jam takes an audience there and back every single night they take the stage.
Over the two nights, Pearl Jam played a total of 66 songs repeating only 10. They ranged from their debut album Ten to the recently released Lightning Bolt and even beyond into B-side and cover territory.
The sold-out Barclays Center was completely full by 8pm both nights. Looking back into the crowd from media row in front of the stage I could see a sea of people filled with excitement and anticipation; all smiles. All of the ticket hysteria, complaining about the lines, it being $12 beer night, and the foul odor of the subway suddenly became collectively irrelevant when the lights went down and the first chords of Pendulum rang out through Brooklyn like an approaching storm. It’s like taking a shower in beauty and being overwhelmed from every angle.
After setting that mood, the first notes of Release were followed by a roar of approval almost overpowering the band. The capacity crowd sang along “I’ll ride the wave where it takes me, I’ve opened up. Release Me!” in perfect unison. It’s amazing to hear that song resonate with an audience still to that level almost 23 years later.
As the concert kept moving toward high-gear with Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, the stadium anthem Lightning Bolt, classic staple Corduroy, and the Dead Kennedys-esque Mind Your Manners it was apparent that the band was having a great time playing a venue in which they had yet to play. Lead-singer Eddie Vedder took a moment to speak to the audience and thanked their friend Jay-Z for having a part in the building being there and continued to say “We’ve got 99 problems but a place to play ain’t one.”
Pearl Jam displayed a great amount of energy and involved the audience in sing-along after sing-along throughout their set, sometimes even personalizing songs. Vedder spoke of superstorm Sandy a couple of times and dedicated I Am Mine, a song about finding one’s inner strength, to New Jersey.
One of the high points in the evening came when the audience roared like a winning touchdown had been scored when the piano intro to Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns made its way through the sound system. Vedder definitively nailed Chloe Dancer to virtual perfection. It was a chill-bump, hair raising climax to an already stellar evening. The band of course dedicated it to the late Andy Wood, who was in a band called Mother Love bone with bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard in the years before Pearl Jam. Andy Wood always wanted a chance to play large stadiums like the Barclays Center, but never got the opportunity before his passing. Whenever Pearl Jam plays an arena or stadium they know Andy would have loved, this song sometimes finds its way into the set list as a way of Andy somehow posthumously getting to play that stadium.
The main set, which consisted of 20 songs, closed with the frantic combination of Save You, Do the Evolution, and a blistering Rearviewmirror. The first encore, performed mostly seated and acoustic, began with a tune dedicated to “all of the East coast surfers.” The rarely performed Oceans from their debut album Ten was met with a sing-along from the audience. Oceans has always been a fan favorite, which was apparent on Friday night. The mini-acoustic set continued with Just Breathe and Yellow Moon.
As the applause led into Porch, a series of glowing lamps encased in round glass globes were lowered down to the band’s eye-level area throughout the stage. While they played the band playfully pushed the glass globes around to get them swinging all over the stage. Although one of them shattered (nobody was hurt), Vedder climbed on top one of the glass globes and swung around over the stage and directly over the first few people in the very front of the crowd, all while singing the peak of the song. It was reminiscent of the early years of Pearl Jam when fans saw Eddie Vedder climb to the rafters of venues and jump into the crowd during Porch.
Before the second encore, Vedder recognized an audience member in front who was witnessing his 100th show. “I think we owe you some drinks” said Vedder as he gave him some of his wine. As the Brooklyn crowd was treated to the once sad story, but now a story of redemption and celebration Alive, the volume in the Barclays Center reached a new height and thousands of people chanted as lead guitarist Mike McCready annihilated the solo at the end of the song. Pearl Jam closed with Indifference with the house lights fully lit. The band completely stopped and let the audience sing the lines “I’ll swallow poison until I grow immune. I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room.” And that’s exactly how the story ended on night one of this two night stand. Every single person in the arena screamed their lungs out and their voices filled the room. Not with anger, but with joy and love.
Seeing Pearl Jam is different than seeing any other artist out there, especially for the die-fans in their massive fan-base and fan club. For these people, the show day is an entire full day. The merchandise booths for Pearl Jam open outside the venues at around noon the day of the shows. Hundreds line up to get their hands on limited and exclusive merchandise and memorabilia such as show-specific posters, shirts, stickers, and even scarves. Fan club members almost always hold a fan pre-party at a local bar or restaurant near any given venue and raise money for charities by auctioning off donated Pearl Jam and music memorabilia.
After the beauty of night one, it was hard to even try to predict what night two may bring. The first thing I did when I woke up at the Union Hotel in Brooklyn on Saturday morning was attempt to get the song Wash (a B-side from Pearl Jam’s debit album) trending on Twitter in the hopes that it may makes its way into the night’s set.
The lights came down for night two and Pendulum was again the opening song. This hasn’t happened often with Pearl Jam, opening with the same song twice in one city. However, much to everyone’s surprise, none other than Wash immediately followed. “Oh please let it rain today, this city’s so filthy……” There aren’t many times when you hear an entire stadium or arena go into an all-out frenzy when a band plays a B-side. This only happens with Pearl Jam.
Keeping it low-key to begin, the set moved into a poignant version of Nothingman from Vitalogy which quickly turned into high gear with Lightning Bolt. The title track from their new album has the perfect formula for a big arena. It’s up-tempo, melodic, and has that big ending that reminds you a little bit of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
As much as Pearl Jam played from their new album, they continued to throw in tracks from their entire career such as Last Exit, In Hiding, and a ‘could have easily been a massive radio hit’ B-side Down. This was definitely turning out to be a show to add to a weekend that will not soon be forgotten. They had sound issues with it on night one, but Sirens was performed beautifully and flawlessly on night two. Sirens is a slow serenade looking at the fragility of life from the point-of-view of someone who suddenly has so much to lose where before he didn’t have to care and could live recklessly. Vedder bares his soul on this track and delivers it with an almost tear-inducing level of emotion. It’s one of those songs where if someone somewhere in that audience can’t feel something, then I feel sorry for them. The crowd joined in for the final push of the song helping out with the lyric “The fear goes away.”
Another stand-out track from their new album entitled Infallible was also performed to perfection. Although brand new and only performed a handful of times, it is quickly becoming a crowd favorite. After what was a mesmerizing version of Even Flow and the serenade of Present Tense, Vedder dedicated the song Rats appropriately to Wall Street Followed by a rowdy Unthought Known. Keeping it vintage, Brooklyn next got a taste of Immortality, Once, State of Love and Trust, and Given to Fly. They were even treated with a surprise visit by Dennis Rodman in the general admission pit (fortunately no Korean dictators were in attendance).
Any time Pearl Jam plays the song Better Man, expect the audience to perform more of the song than the band. With Vedder accompanying them on guitar the entire Barclays Center sang the first verse, chorus, and second verse of the song until the rest of band joined for a final push to the end of the main set. Pearl Jam also tagged the end of the song with the English Beat’s Save it for Later.
As with night one, the first encore began with the band seated and acoustic instruments in hand. Just as the caught the audience off guard with Oceans on night one, they did it again with Footsteps on night two. It was followed shortly by a beautiful version of Future Days featuring the backup vocals of drummer Matt Cameron. They finished up the first encore by repeating Porch from night one. Vedder did jump up in the lights again, but it wasn’t as acrobatic as the previous night. Maybe they were hoping for the crew not to have to come up and sweep broken glass again.
The final encore, which consisted of a whopping 7 songs, was high gear from start to finish. Most artists when performing an encore do a song or two. Not two 7-song encores taking them a half hour past the city curfew of 11pm. That’s not just epic, that’s a musical saga. When I say high gear I mean songs like Whipping, then Blood, then Leavin’ Here. After Leavin’ Here, the capacity crowd though the show was over. It was almost closing time and that’s a great song to literally leave on. Not the case. As people were expecting a curtain call, we began to hear the beginning of Black and a collective wow went through the audience. I’ve personally heard this song a million times and many times live before, and this was one of the most impressive. It’s a sad story that brings a lot of feelings and emotions. Year after year as audiences sing this along with Vedder, I think it’s kind of like collective group therapy for the hopeful, yet heartbroken. It you don’t have scars, have you ever really lived? To me, that’s what this song has become. Not only does it forever bind the band with its audience, but it also serves as a collective celebration of those scars of life and hope for the future.
It is over? Of course not. Who cares if it’s after 11pm. As I heard the opening to Alive, I realized something. It rarely has ever happened but Brooklyn got the “Mamasan Trilogy” in night two. The group of three songs (Once, Footsteps, and Alive) are the three instrumental songs that were a demo cassette tape made in Seattle in 1990 by Matt Cameron, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, and Stone Gossard that made its way down to California where a gas station worker named Eddie Vedder wrote some lyrics and sang over, then mailed it back to Seattle. That’s why 23 years later we all got to “scream our lungs out till it filled this room” in Brooklyn, NY.
With the house lights completely up, Yellow Ledbetter closed the show. As the band left the stage, guitarist Mike McCready remained to finish it out himself with a Jimi-Hendrix-esque version of the Star-Spangled Banner.
It was a couple of days short of the 23rd anniversary of the first live gig (10/22/90), and it was nothing less than an amazing experience. Any musician who wants to learn how to connect to an audience and build fans can learn a lot from Pearl Jam. There’s nothing like seeing Pearl Jam in New York City. It’s a city that has always been good to them and they always return the favor and more. It’s that one place in America you can go and see every single person singing along to the music making Pearl Jam not just a band, but instead a complete orchestra derived from everyone there into one magical experience.
The set lists for Pearl Jam October 18th & 19th on Brooklyn, NY were as follows:
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Mind Your Manners
I Am Mine
Given To Fly
Eruption (Van Halen cover, Mike McCready only)
Spin The Black Circle
Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns (Mother Love Bone cover)
Let The Records Play
Do The Evolution
Sleight Of Hand
Daughter/Blitzkrieg Bop (Ramones cover)
Sonic Reducer (Dead Boys cover)
Mind Your Manners
State of Love & Trust
Given To Fly
Better Man/Save It For Later (English Beat cover)
All Those Yesterdays
Do The Evolution
Leavin’ Here (H-D-H cover)
Rockin’ In The Free World (Neil Young cover)
Yellow Ledbetter/Star Spangled Banner
A special thanks to the Media Relations staff at the Barclays Center and the entire Pearl Jam team for allowing me to shoot and cover this event.
Dustin M Pardue