Pearl Jam At Madison Square Garden, Monday, May 2nd, 2016, Reviewed
When Eddie Vedder compared Pearl Jam to Billy Joel, and concluded that his band were just a bunch of punks, towards the conclusion of their two night stand at Madison Square garden yesterday, he was both completely accurate and self-aware enough to nail how the Arena rockers are different than any other Arena size pop performer in 2016.
On an open, plain stage, whose idea of décor are lanterns coming down from the ceiling late, Pearl Jam were a five piece rock band in a world where their closest comparison, U2, define high tech mindfuck of enormous proportions. There is nothing there on a Pearl Jam stage, no production to speak of, no SFX, no back up tapes, no full brass band and vocal back up (pace Springsteen on the tour before this one), no set pieces and dancers and filmed highlights and guest stars… no, wait, there are guest stars, no nothing, just a band and their songs, and if you like the band, you’d have loved them last night. And if you don’t like the band, you might be a little less harsh in your judgement after seeing their passionate, straightforward heart of rock and roll performance.
During an exceptional set that took away the nasty taste from the bands awful Global Citizen performance last year, they covered all the hits, went deep from time to time, did a handful of cover songs, and redeemed Eddie’s overwrought “Imagine” of 2015 with a solo acoustic singalong to “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” .
But Pearl Jam are the oddest Arena rockers, they don’t have the songs, and after their third album, they don’t have the sales either. When the band first emerged from the Seattle grunge scene , no less a personage than Kurt Cobain, called them out as fakers, and listening to their debut album Ten, even today, you can hear what annoyed Cobain. With Eddie’s overwrought and husky vocals, the bands pseudo-punk hard classic rock sound and creepy singalongs to suicide, they both tried too hard and smelled of business spirit. Vs was about the same and it wasn’t till Vitalogy, with Cobain dead, and a million copies sold in the first week, that the band’s true nature emerged. Eddie had a major meltdown, they had an allergic reaction to success and nearly came apart at the seams. Strange as it seems to stay it, they remained true to punk idealism, and sort of do till this day. Among other things, Pearl Jam fought Ticketmaster (and lost, but they lost because they were fighting the wrong entity, they acted as though TM worked in a vacuum from, and not in collusion with, the pop music industry) but before they lost Pearl Jam played Randall’s Island in the summer of 1994 and became live legends.
It was the first time I saw them, and I made sure I caught them every time they passed through town after that if I possibly could. With lousy opening bands (Ben Harper, anyone?), they made Randall’s Island into a Pearl Jam fest, and the youthful, energetic superstar Eddie, went out of his way to react well with his audience. While the rest of the band, even guitarist Mike McCready, essentially disappears into the background on stage, Vedder is a handsome rock god with a persecution complex. Politically naïve but in a good way, he is Bono without the stigma of rampant egotism. And Pearl Jam are U2… without the songs.
Yup, Pearl Jam are not great song writers, they have no black influences at all, and that is OK, but all too often, they lack tunefulness, and their songs emerge as singalongs, verbal hooks to trick you along to guitar based classic rock umbrage. The blueprint is “Alive” … the verse is
“While you were sittin’
Home alone at age thirteen
Your real father was dyin’
Sorry you didn’t see him
But I’m glad we talked.”
But the chorus is all mannerisms:
“Oh I, oh, I’m still alive
Hey, hey, I, oh, I’m still alive
Hey I, oh, I’m still alive”
What sells it, and the reason Pearl Jam are arena rockers, is Eddie’s intense, persuasive, all-inclusive singing: it sounds important and it is simple enough to be very easy to singalong to. It sounds like a sop to angst ridden teens.
By 1996, the Pearl Jam nightmare of mass adulation was over. No Code had its moments, “Lukin” is a great song, but that was it, they were back where they wanted to be, growing an army of faithful to fill arena’s and sing along to subjects they would probably be better off not singing along to.
And twenty years later, they are a steady audience pleaser and sometimes a little more. I wrote this about their 2013 set at Barclay Center in a mostly positive review: “Time after time after time, the songs fail to take hold.” That wasn’t true last night, last night was an event and the night before last? The Sunday gig? I heard two guys claim the band seemed a little tired after Sunday’s three hour extravaganza. The mind boggles as to how that one played itself out…
In the here and now of yesterday, the band were exactly how you’d hope they’d be, a tight little rock band, with a lead singer who could make anything sound dramatic, and strong riffs, good hooks, and few catchy melodies. They opened with “Corduroy”, lyrically not the smartest protest song you’ve ever heard, but over the years it has morphed into a self-exulted act of mass defiance in the face of absolutely nothing. A terrific sing it to the rafters that the band maintained for seventeen songs without secession, including three men songs (“Nothing”, “Leather” and “Better”) and a surprise treat with Rick and Tom of Cheap Trick joining them for “Surrender”.
The weakest moment of the evening followed, the terrific Lennon song, soon became intense semi-acoustic mood music, deep album tracks where the band, emoted a touch too much. Still, they saved “Present Tense” and “State Of Love And Trust”, much bigger moments than I remembered .
The third part redeemed them, as PL emerged from the evening two hours in as a topnotch rock-pop band with jam propensities. It opened with “Last Kiss” –a great car crash song from the early sixties and a real pleasure. It reminds me of “Tell Laura I Love Her” in reverse but with equal sincerity. And, as always with Eddie, it is the sincerity that sells you. Then we got a little speech about voting and how crappy election years are, and about how we should vote for Bernie, and then, to prove his point we got the Police’s lousy “Driven To Tears” (Actually the nadir of the evening was Vedder’s preposterous endorsement of not Bernie but the reggae doofuses of ego trembling bombast) and a shaved Sting came out and performed it.
From there, it was simply perfection, summoning the soul of Stiv for “Sonic Reducer”, a gigantic “oh oh oh” for “Alive” and best of all, my favorite PJ, with a sterling guitar solo (you know the one) on “Yellow Ledbetter”. This is what Eddie said the song was about according to Wikipedia: “a friend of his from Seattle whose brother served in the first Gulf War. His friend received a “yellow letter” in the mail informing him that his brother had died in the war. Vedder and his friend then went for a walk. On this walk, the friend, whom Vedder described as “alternative looking,” happened by a house with an American flag flying, and people on the porch. He stopped and gestured to the flag, as if to salute it, but the people on the porch glared at him disapprovingly due to his appearance.”
Yes, but unlike, say, “Daughter”, it holds its horror close to its chest, and as a singalong it pierces you. This is only the second time I’ve heard it live and it remains their greatest moment, to have it culminate a bravado live performance was very touching.
On stage, the thing about Pearl Jam is the thing about Bruce, that is they both have the ability to impart absolute conviction to the same songs for decades on end. I know I’ve short changed Stone and Mike here, Jeff and Matt, but remember even Keith takes a back seat to Mick, when Mick is front and center.
Pearl Jam are not a great band, they don’t have the songs to prove it, but they feel like a great band. They are like this massive cult where at MSG, the entire audience are all over every song, every second.
And they will do the same thing in Canada in a couple of days.