Better Than: Everything else.
It doesn’t take long to get chills at a Pearl Jam concert. As soon as the lights drop there’s this roar, the sound of some 17- or 18,000 people not just cheering, but screaming. It’s a roar that’s particularly deafening if you’re used to clubs with a capacity of a few thousand, or really in comparison to most arena shows. Both nights, the band flitted onstage shrouded in near-total darkness, Eddie Vedder armed, as usual, with his notebook and a bottle of wine. He steps to the mic, and there’s that low, resonant voice with just the right amount of grit and grain coloring its middle-aged edges.
See also: Pearl Jam Haven’t Been Relevant in Years, So Why Do We Still Clamor to See Them Live?
They’re starting shows in a moodier way these days, Friday opening with the one-two of the meditative “Pendulum” and the sweeping “Release,” Vedder navigating first into the darker, matured corners of his voice and then back into the arena muscle he long ago perfected. He has the sound of a man that has earned his gravitas, and immediately a Pearl Jam show goes beyond that feeling like the frontman has control over the crowd. It seems bigger than that. They’re one of those rarefied artists who transport you into their world from the first note.
“Hello from Brooklyn, it’s Saturday night!” Vedder joked at the second show, and there it was, boldly underlined–it’s bizarre to see Pearl Jam in New York, let alone Brooklyn, to the point where you feel like you’re in some alternate universe. The epicenter of the world’s hipness as far as the mainstream is concerned, Brooklyn doesn’t seem like the kind of place Pearl Jam would be playing. This is a band that hasn’t been “of the moment” in almost 20 years, but is still huge. They’re a hard band to imagine in front of a proto-typically New York crowd or, at least, a young one.
And they’re not. They’re in front of a Pearl Jam crowd, seemingly comprised of just as many husbands and wives driving in from far-flung corners of the Tri-State area as aging rock bros taking the subway in from Manhattan. This is a crowd full of thirty- and forty-somethings who could give a damn about seeming hiply aloof, and belt out the songs of their teens or twenties in a way that violently brushes away any possible claims of it being nostalgic. When Vedder goes to sing the iconic opening lines of “Corduroy,” he’s entirely drowned out by the concert’s attendees. It’s celebratory.
Say what you will about Pearl Jam’s discography, but even critics who dismiss them as recording artists recognize their power as a live act. If you’ve ever been to a Pearl Jam concert, you’re already familiar with the extreme, unfettered adulation described above, but you also probably know that the band earns every drop of sweat or tear from their audience. Over the course of two nights, they played for a total of about five and a half hours. They played 65 songs altogether, only 10 of which were repeats across both nights. No opening acts.
Each night had its own character. Friday was primarily new material and greatest hits, a decent share of famous radio singles (“Alive,” “Corduroy,” “Dissident,” “Daughter”) but also fan favorites (“Rearviewmirror,” “Given to Fly,” “Do the Evolution”). Saturday was a touch more adventurous. The new songs were still there, and there were still plenty of hits (“Evenflow” and “Black” now making their appearance) but there were also obscurities and deep cuts like “In Hiding,” “Present Tense,” “Immortality,” “All Those Yesterdays,” “Whipping” and many more (complete setlist for both nights on next page).
Pearl Jam’s starting to take after Springsteen in that regard, at once the consummate professionals and the freewheeling, affable performers, gleefully placing a b-side against a single you could find on Guitar Hero, ensuring no fan could leave even moderately dissatisfied. It’s an approach that falls somewhere between “take no prisoners” and “hanging out with 17,000 old friends,” or is likely a combination of the two. It’s a consistently rewarding show for the fans who’ve stuck around all this time, and know just what they’ll see at a Pearl Jam show in 2013.
And what is that, exactly? Well, you will see a bunch of middle-aged people jumping wildly to “Given to Fly” in a fashion that isn’t totally uncommon at a concert, but is rare in this totality, in this unison. You will see Eddie Vedder climb onto a stage prop during the extended jam of “Porch” and you will think “Good God, this is a 48 year old man swinging over the crowd on a light fixture.” You might see Dennis Rodman fist-pumping at the front of the General Admission pit during “Betterman.” You will see an arena full of people, maybe twice your age, with the rapt faces of church-goers during “Indifference,” singing to the air in front of them and arms held aloft as if everyone’s performing.
You will have that realization that no one is self-conscious at a Pearl Jam show. It goes beyond being refreshing and straight into overwhelming. It gives you faith in–what? The power and transformative powers of rock music? In 2013? Well, sure, if you want. Whatever it is you’re looking for, Pearl Jam will deliver, as long as it can be conveyed with guitar and bass and drums. You will feel somewhat removed from time. You will believe in something again, just for a little while.
Overheard Night #1: “I come to Pearl Jam concerts and they’re all people my age. I know all the Pearl Jam fan archetypes. But you guys, you look like you’re in college. Is Pearl Jam still popular with college kids? I’m glad you’re here, because I know nothing about you.”
Overheard Night #2: “I don’t want to hear ‘Jeremy.’ I just don’t want to hear it. If Ed Ved starts singing it, I’ll be like ‘Shut up, asshole.’ And this is coming from a big Pearl Jam fan.” (They did not play “Jeremy.”)
Setlist, Night #1:
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Might Your Manners
I Am Mine
Given to Fly
Spin the Black Circle
Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns (Mother Love Bone cover)
Let the Records Play
Do the Evolution
Sleight of Hand
Sonic Reducer (Dead Boys cover)
Setlist, Night #2:
Mind Your Manners
State of Love and Trust
Given to Fly
All Those Yesterdays
Do the Evolution
Leaving Here (old Motown/The Who cover)
Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young cover)
Yellow Ledbetter/The Star Spangled Banner