Thursday, June 26, 2008

At a Pearl Jam Concert, the Fans are Part of the Show

A Pearl Jam concert is a tricky event to review. Oh, sure, you can knock out what a casual fan needs to know in a paragraph (I went yesterday to the second sold-out night of back-to-back concerts at Madison Square Garden; good band; energetic and engaging, if slightly incoherent lead singer; some songs dissolve into Who-like extended jams while others burst forth in short explosions of power; two-hour, 45-minute set mixing hits, covers and obscurities; two special guests: C.J. Ramone and Ace Frehley ... look at that, I took care of it in a parenthetical, kind of). But the thing is, there are precious few casual fans at a Pearl Jam show, which makes the concert unlike nearly anything else in rock music.

Pearl Jam, one of the few survivors of the early 1990s Seattle grunge scene, has built a phenomenon. The band does more than just sell out entire tours, it has attracted a maniacally obsessive army of supporters. And the band happily plays to that intensity. Where most acts on tour might adjust a song or two from their set lists from night to night, literally hundreds of songs will be in the hopper for a Pearl Jam tour. Of the 30 selections from the Tuesday night show at the Garden, only 11 of them made their way into the concert on Wednesday.

And while it’s common for an artist to throw in a deep album cut on a tour to shake things up, a huge chunk of a Pearl Jam set is devoted to B-sides and obscure songs on even obscurer albums. Last night’s concert featured a lot of familiar songs, at least as far as Pearl Jam concerts go (you could still have constructed a two-hour set of radio friendly cuts the band didn’t play, like “Jeremy,” “Black,” “Daughter,” “Animal,” “Spin the Black Circle,” and “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town,” just to name a few), but the night also included two numbers with running times of less than a minute and a half. No other band I know of regularly inserts what are essentially album throwaways into their live sets.

But here is what is truly astounding: That’s exactly what the fans want. Being at a Pearl Jam show in which the band plays some sought-after nugget for the first time in a long time (or, even better, ever) is the Moby Dick to this audience of Ahabs. Walk around the arena at a Pearl Jam concert and you are sure to pick up pieces of conversations that begin with, “Did you hear they played” some song in some city. It’s not unusual to look out over a hockey arena during a rock concert and see 19,000 people singing along to part of a song. At a Pearl Jam show, that happens virtually every song, from the familiar chorus of a radio-friendly cut like “Even Flow” to the barely known “Lukin” off of the hardly noticed album “No Code”

Pearl Jam fans barely even need to be prodded. When lead singer Eddie Vedder, alone on the stage, noodled the first few notes of “Better Man” on his guitar, 19,000 people proceeded to sing the entire first verse (seemingly before Vedder was ready), without the front man playing a single note. The crowd then waited patiently until Vedder played another two or three notes on his guitar, spurring the faithful to sing the entire chorus.

This kind of crowd participation and assumed knowledge of the band’s catalogue makes attending a Pearl Jam show a bit daunting, not just to casual fans, but even to actual fans who don’t have a near-religious devotion to the band. You start to feel like a virgin at a “Rocky Horror” screening or a visitor to someone else’s church. Everyone around you seems to know the words and hand gestures, while you look on as an outsider.

That’s not to say that watching a Pearl Jam concert isn’t a lot of fun, even if you’re not an obsessive fan. The band puts on an entertaining show. Vedder knows how to keep the crowd interested, and the songs are strong, ranging from straight-up rockers ( “World Wide Suicide”), to powerful introspective mid-tempo anthems (“Release”), to more abstract, dissonant rants (“Rats”), to songs that mix up two or more of these elements (“Rearviewmirror”).

Despite Pearl Jam’s more ambitious urges, the band members are quick to talk about their classic rock influences, especially the Who. Most shows feature a cover of “Baba O’Riley” or “Love Reign O’er Me,” but last night that slot was filled when Ace Frehley of Kiss came on stage to play “Black Diamond” with the band, featuring drummer Matt Cameron on lead vocals and guitarist Mike McCready singing the introduction (just like drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Paul Stanley do on the Kiss original).

But even a Kiss cover can spawn joy in the ranks of the Pearl Jam faithful. You see, the band covered “Black Diamond” once before (in Chicago’s The Vic Theater on August 2, 2007, as the amazingly comprehensive official band site,, reveals ... as an aside, the site is worth a look, since it carries so much information about every show the band has ever played), so the fact that they played it last night -- with Ace Frehley on guitar, to boot -- will send shockwaves through Pearl Jam nation.

Actually, “Black Diamond” is a good metaphor for the whole show. Pearl Jam fans saw it as an amazing “get,” witnessing the second-ever band rendition of the song. More casual fans got to rock out with a fun arena rock anthem. Everyone was happy, even if it was for different reasons.

By the time the band finished its marathon show with a finale of “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter,” the house lights had been turned up, and the crowd’s vocals had risen to a fever pitch, virtually drowning out Vedder. It seemed only fitting that the fans would take center stage, considering what a huge role they play in a Pearl Jam show. Luckily, for those of us less obsessed with the band, the intensity of the hardcore fans added to the concert experience.

And “experience” really is the right word. A Pearl Jam show is an event rock fans should catch at least once. You don’t even have to study the band’s material in advance, I promise.

Set List
Pearl Jam
Madison Square Garden, June 25, 2008
World Wide Suicide
Severed Hand
All Night
Marker In The Sand
I'm Open
State Of Love And Trust
Even Flow
Who You Are
Given To Fly
Do The Evolution
Encore 1
Inside Job
I Believe In Miracles
Better Man
Encore 2
No More
Last Kiss
Why Go
Black Diamond
Yellow Ledbetter