Road Trip Report: Pearl Jam in Denver
Pearl Jam still puts on the best rock show you’ll ever see in an arena anywhere on Earth.
Eddie Vedder and his bandmates proved this Wednesday night at a sold-out Pepsi Center in Denver, closing out their 2014 tour with an epic three-set, three-and-a-half hour show that spanned a career nearing the quarter-century mark. The band was in a celebratory, at times giddy, mood — not only because the performance marked the end of another tour, but because Wednesday was the 24th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s first gig.
Fans attempted to serenade the band with “Happy Birthday” as the show entered its third leg, and Vedder paused to reminisce about that first concert and pass a bottle of wine around to his band (he went through three bottles in the course of the night, and sent another up to a fan in the last row). The day after Pearl Jam’s debut show in Seattle in 1990, Vedder recalled, they recorded a demo. The day after that, he went back to his job at a gas station in San Diego and listened to a tape of the session while working the midnight shift. And the day after that, he said, he put in his notice to quit pumping gas and play music full-time.
“We’re proud to still be together, we’re proud to be in a long-term relationship,” Vedder said, though he noted with a laugh that the band “had to divorce a few drummers” until Matt Cameron joined in 1998.
The origin story served as an intro to “Life Wasted,” from the band’s 2006 self-titled album. Among the impressive things about the Denver performance was the clout that the band’s post-90s material took on live. Like a lot of Pearl Jam fans — or its less devoted fans perhaps — I haven’t bothered much with the band’s post-millennium output. I like Pearl Jam enough to drive to Denver and back from Aspen for a midweek show, but not enough to have given last year’s “Lightning Bolt” more than a cursory spin. On the records, maybe the newer stuff sounds like predictable and formulaic Pearl Jam to me, but hearing songs like “Sirens” (from “Lightning Bolt”) and “Ghost” (from 2002s “Riot Act”) live, I kept wondering why I’ve been so dismissive. Like all of Pearl Jam, I guess, they translate best through the band’s unrelenting live act.
During the two previous shows on this tour, Pearl Jam had played 1996s “Yield” and 1998s “No Code” in their entirety, but Denver got a full retrospective. The first set was a fluid up-and-down of the soft and hard sides of Pearl Jam, transitioning for instance from the acoustic ballad “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” to rock anthems like “Last Exit” and “Why Go” into the frenetic, hardcore-influenced “Mind Your Manners” and back into a quiet mood with “Setting Forth,” a Vedder solo song from his soundtrack to “Into the Wild.” He dedicated it to the sisters of the movie’s subject, Chris McClandless, who were in attendance.
The band ended the first set with ferocious takes on “Lukin” and “Porch,” and with guitarist Mike McCreedy indulging in a ridiculous attempt at a punk rock moment: smashing one of the moving lights on the band’s elaborate stage (it also included an animatronic bird). They returned for a mostly acoustic second set.
They threw in a few rarities over the course of the night, including “State of Love and Trust” (from the 1992 “Singles” soundtrack) and a goofy take on “Don’t Gimme No Lip” with guitarist Stone Gossard on vocals and Vedder on tambourine. Though they’re known for never repeating a set list, Pearl Jam didn’t skimp on crowd-pleasers (“Leash” and “Rearviewmirror” closed out the second set; “Black,” “Better Man,” “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter” were all included in the final encore, during which the band popped bottles of champagne and tossed several tambourines into the crowd).
The Pepsi Center sold tickets for the arena’s whole bowl, leaving a sizeable portion of the crowd looking at the band from behind the stage for most of the show. But Vedder and company threw them a bone, moving behind the drum kit and playing to the back of the house on “Last Kiss.”
Pearl Jam might also be the best cover band around, with a well-earned reputation for paying their musical heroes tribute on stage. The Denver show included captivating takes on Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” (during which the crowd raised lighters and cell phones at Vedder’s urging) and a riotous rendition of The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland.” For good measure, the night ended with the house lights up and McCready playing a Hendrixed-flavored “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“Is this called showmanship? When they make the audience beg for it?” Vedder asked at one point. “I’m just learning.”
Hardly. Twenty-four years in, Vedder and Pearl Jam are rock’s showmen-in-chief.
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