Pearl Jam’s triumphant return to Madison Square Garden last night marked the ninth time I’ve seen the Seattle superstars in concert.
When they first arrived on the scene during my senior year in high school, I was pretty skeptical about them. For me, they cut a little too close to the cloth of the L.A. hard rock sound and vision that also made me initially misunderstand Mother Love Bone as well (and foolishly so). It was the experience of seeing them at the second Lollapalooza up at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the summer of 1992 that made me a true believer.
Never had I ever seen a band play before a crowd with such all-consuming passion. They played signatures such as “Alive”, “Porch” and “Yellow Ledbetter” with such incredible fury, bringing the richness of the band’s roots in The Who and Neil Young out even more upon repeated listens to Ten shortly thereafter, like the way a good stain illuminates the wood out of a new staircase.
Now, here I am, 25 years gone since the release of Pearl Jam’s seminal debut and a nose hair less since seeing them up at Lolla ’92, hanging out in the Garden with my wife and the executive producer of NBC’s Today, Tom Mazarella, and his wife sitting to our right. Here is a guy who most likely has to get up for work in just a few short hours after Pearl Jam ended their near three-hour show with the luminous Vs. closer “Indifference”, having the absolute time of his life, as if the idea of preparing a very live morning news program at 7 a.m. was the last thing on his mind.
That’s the magic of Pearl Jam.
They take you to this place that transcends age, social status, work responsibilities or any kind of strife that may exist beyond the walls of this New York sports and entertainment mecca. For this night, Tom wasn’t the man who runs the news show we’ve watched faithfully every morning for decades now, he was just another guy my age, just as excited to hear the wealth of treasures a wine-drunk Eddie and the boys were blasting us with (Pearl Jam, of course, being the only reason we would go out on a Game of Thrones night).
The beauty of this particular tour is that Pearl Jam really don’t have anything they need to promote.
Indeed, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Ten, which the band played in its entirety a couple of nights earlier in Philly, not to mention the 20th anniversary of what many hardcore PJ fans believe to be their best LP, 1996’s No Code, off which they played four songs on Sunday. It was also the 25th anniversary of the first time the band ever played New York City (which Eddie reminded us was on July 13, 1991 at The Marquee Room).
With no set agenda, these shows have been literal smorgasbords of deep-catalog madness and improvised fun. And as they always do, they brought the heavy artillery to the Garden for this first date of their two-night residency, with a set list that is surely being ooh’ed and aah’ed at on fan sites as we speak. It was a set list that defined, for me, what made this group go from my least favorite to most favorite Seattle band growing up in a matter of months, especially given the concentration on those crucial first five albums.
This is my wife’s fourth Pearl Jam show, and she lamented on the walk to the Garden from the car that they’ve yet to play “Wishlist”, which is one of her absolute favorite PJ songs. Last night, her “Wish” was granted, not to mention my own private set list hopefuls like “I Got Shit” off the 1995 Merkin Ball EP (are you kidding me!), the extended live version of “Porch” and of course such deep dish faves as “Rats” from Vs. and the No Code rocker “Hail Hail” (also played at the Garden in ‘98) alongside such comfy standards as “Corduroy”, “Do The Evolution”, “Rearviewmirror” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter of a Small Town”, which they played to the cheap seats behind the stage.
A particularly poignant moment in the show came when Vedder dedicated “Off He Goes” to a fan in the audience who suffers from an autoimmune disease, an area in the health care field the singer’s wife Jill McCormick is involved.
And then came the covers.
Of course they did some old tour warhorses like Neil’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” and that Pete Townsend-by-way-of-The-English-Beat version of “Save It For Later” they throw into “Betterman”. However, it was the wild curveballs they pitched that made this a particularly special show. They played “Takin’ It To The Streets” by The Doobie Brothers on a dare, apparently, and during the acoustic set Eddie broke out into “Dangerous Business”, a song Paul Williams wrote and performed on the soundtrack to the infamous 1987 comedic lemon Ishtar, of all things.
I should mention though: this night definitely belonged to the rhythm section. The accentuation of his signature elastic soul groove during “Jeremy” proves why Jeff Ament is one of best bassists in the business nearly 30 years going since the Green River days, while Matt Cameron’s particularly intense performance behind the kit might finally get all those old school heads to stop pining for Dave Abruzzese already.
The most amazing treat, however, came when they played the complete Mother Love Bone epic “Chloe Dancer”/”Crown Of Thorns”, which they had played in Philly a couple of nights earlier.
When Pearl Jam played the Garden in 2010, they only performed “Crown”, so it was nice to see them break out the combo, which they played so fluidly. When Mike McCready began to play the opening of “Chloe”, Tom Mazarella turned to me and said, “Chuck Klosterman wrote about how this song is the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of its era.” I replied by telling him that “Chloe”/”Crown” is a far better song than “Stairway”. And with regard to MLB, I must give full thanks to Cameron Crowe and the movie Singles for helping me get hip to not only the band but this absolute perfect pair of songs.
I ran into one of the moms whose daughter is in my son’s preschool class at Shop Rite this morning and talked to her a bit about the concert, as she is a Pearl Jam fan as well.
“But didn’t you feel old being there?” she asked.
“No Way,” I told her.
And the reason why is because when I looked all around me, just about everyone in my scope was in the vicinity of my age, unless it was their children; there were a lot of 11- and 12-year olds in the crowd as well (an amazing sign of hope for the youth of the New York Tri-State area, I believe!).
We all might be in our late, late 30s or early-to-mid 40s, but we are still a young generation. And that’s exactly what I told her. Damn right, we are older, but we local Gen Xers will still bring it for Pearl Jam every time, every tour, no matter how much our bones might ache or our responsibilities at home nag at us.
And last night was particularly electric. Seeing a bunch of middle-aged folks going apeshit over a band they’ve been going apeshit over since we were kids is surely a common sight at the various stops on this tour. But let it be a reminder that we are still the coolest generation, which I say as a proud graduate of the Class of 1992. If you are doubtful of that claim, just go to a Pearl Jam concert.