Why Pearl Jam?
Great rock bands playing live are great. One of the greatest rock bands ever playing live is a humbling experience.
Note: this is a re-post of a piece I wrote and published first on another blog on July 5, 2014.
“Why Pearl Jam in concert?” A question from the sidelines but fair enough posed by my love while I am busy packing up my things for a three day pilgrimage to Berlin early the next morning. Since a while Pearl Jam (PJ) prefers to make an annual appearance at the towns Wuhlheide Open Air stage, making it the only German show available to see the Band without leaving the country. A question fair enough. Even more as in just that moment I realise (again) that I’am not the worlds greatest PJ fan. One reason my answers — better: my attempts to answer — don’t come quick or precise. “We never listen to it at home …” my love investigates a bit further into my apparently open wound. Yes, she is right with that. I murmur something about “a great live band”, the great tradition of touring live bands that got mostly lost in the record sales driven music-business-days of 1980ies and 1990ies. That I missed them during the “Ten Tour” back in the days and that I do not want to repeat such a mistake again. But, I know, I can not really convince her with all that. How should I, as it does not even seem to convince myself. And, anyway, stop it! What do I know. I got this ticket last winter. :-)
My knowledge changes fairly fast. Just 24 quick hours later, ca. 10.45 pm on June 26 in the year 2014, I’m totally convinced. Together with circa 15000+ others. The Band is in the middle of an impressive Ramones cover of “I Believe in Miracles”. Speedy, energetic versions of “Alive”, and “Rockin’ in the free world” are about to follow. And, almost exactly at 11.00 PM, “Yellow Ledbetter” not only chills us all out fantastically, moreover it closes a three hour non-stop set that leaves now questions open. Yes, that’s a band worth traveling for. Yes, that’s a concert worth going to. Hell, yes!
It’s rare in todays live music world that a local crew feels the need to turn on the house lights while the artists are still going on with their thing. That night in Berlin, Pearl Jam made them do it. Those fortunate enough to experience them playing that night understand why some nervous folk from the stage office decided to do so around 10.30 pm … At points PJ seemed to be on stage to fall into an unstoppable rush, to make the music go on forever into the — by Berlin standards — mild and comfortable night. “I don’t know what time the sun sets here these days. But we still will be there once it’s getting dark” stated Eddie Vedder right in the beginning. That’s the stuff that makes stage operators with their probably noise-sensitive neighbours nervous wrecks.
But in the end PJ got their way until the very last note. Making a massive statement about what a great live band can and should and ever will be. Words like charisma, energy, enthusiasm, honesty or joy of playing are coming to mind to describe a more then perfect concert night. Everything was exactly in the right place. Starting with great climate conditions and a smooth entry to the venue despite personalised Tickets (everybody had to show an ID making sure ticket and person carry the same name). Then the venue itself: a laid-back amphitheater that even gives plenty of room to stand or sit for people like me that don’t manage to show up until just a few minutes before showtime. In the arena a great crowd of die hard fans, ready to celebrate their beloved band, ready to come with them into the Even Flow (btw., that was song #16 that night). So, after 1 hour, circa around 09.15 on this evening, a direct line train into the Rock’n’Roll-Olymp had left the station.
Sure, since they stablished them selfs as PJ 1990, the five former grunge-boys learnt well how to push an audience to the edge. To put up a show. A smart mix of slow and fast, noise and rock, psychedelic and alternative, guitar orgies and pure emotions moves ahead with grace, perfection, in-depth sense of mission and the right “fuck you” attitude other stadium rockers miss deeply. No question: this band is in best shape. They play, they sing, they jump, the joke, they compliment each other. In the end they have played 36 songs and that way manifested a set list that covers something for every PJ fans taste.
No doubt, it’s more and more the Eddie Vedder show. But what could be a problem is none, as the band is in total synch with him being the front end of the full pressure forward moving, heavily armed sound-backend. And it is none as Eddie himself is reaching new heights as singer and frontman. No doubt, today he is the better Bono. He even might be, especially if you don’t appreciate narcissism beyond a healthy measure in a front man, Americas best of its kind by now. It sure helps that he does not have to entertain a 50k audience but beside that he manages to keep a fine balance between being himself — the sensitive rock singer with a great soul and an even bigger heart — and playing the leaders role as requested by everyone on and off stage.
It’s thanks to him that the entire scenery sometimes almost seems to be too good to be true. Eddie the conductor, repeatedly asking the front of stage crowds to make 3 steps back all together. Eddie the family man, arranging an extra welcome for the little girl on their parents shoulders around the stage pit. Eddie the giver, distributing tambourines to selected fans across the audience. Eddie the giver, sharing his bottle of red vine with the front rows. Eddie the touchable. He climbs the sound- and light structures, he, makes shake hands with fans. But most of all he sings almost better then ever. Even while he always knows what is next and where to start. With that he gives PJ the necessary structure, the backbone to ride the waves. Eddie the great surfer; as on the waves of the oceans so on the waves of music.
Part of what convinced me as well that this night is a great moment in Rock history worth experiencing, is what happens off stage. Clearly initiated by the band itself a good bunch of security people directed by a big impressive, headset wearing guy in grey shirt, takes good care of the hardcore fan club in the first couple of rows right before stage. Beside the usual pull-outs for the notorious stage divers, they really take care by giving away free water, answering questions, helping out if the occasional flag or sweater gets lost in the trench. The wine from the bottle Eddie is leaving for the crowd gets distributed via prepared paper cups. Even the girls selling the merch really know how to talk to us. Nice! This is as close to a family gathering as so many people can get in just 5 hours.
Since what has been left of the music biz (and, even now, anno 2014, it’s still a billion-dollar biz) became very much a Live Music industry, there has been a lot of talk about PJ being one of the best live bands out there. And everybody who says that is so right; but most voices making statements deeply miss some points. Like PJ by today is not simply a good band that knows how to put on a show. They are soul. They are a statement. They did not make the same mistake many colleagues made by fading too deep into perfection or going bigger and bigger until there are no bigger venues to go anymore. Their authenticity, their glow and their kind roughness around the edges makes them living Rock’n’Roll history in the here and now already. For me this puts them on the same level as the Rolling Stones and in spheres The Greatful Dead or Led Zeppelin once knew how to experience. Pearl Jam represents a very own punk-inspired version of Grandeur, of identity I see no other band presenting to that extend right now.
So, the answer to my loves question in the end for now and ever will be a very simple one: “Peal Jam, because it’s something not to be missed if you love music.”