Thursday, October 23, 2014

Eleven on a Scale of 'Ten': Truly Epic Pearl Jam Yields an Old Milwaukee Classic -- Concert Review

Concert Review:

Pearl Jam
BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee
October 20, 2014

If you've ever seen Pearl Jam in concert over their 23 years together, you probably know that calling them one of the great live acts of all-time isn't hyperbole.

But just two songs into their show Monday night in Milwaukee, both from their good-but-not-great 2013 Lightning Bolt album, that acclimation was not only reiterated but amplified.

Gloriously--as in I can't readily recall them ever sounding better--amplified.

And things only got better from there, over the course of a 3-hour-and-15-minute show that was--not in a trite, overused, co-opted by mediocrity sort of way--truly epic.

Certainly, I've long known how great a band--and concert act--Pearl Jam is. There is no other extant band who I've followed closely from their first album onward over as long a span.

Although I now rue--and to an extent did then--not seeing Pearl Jam (along with Nirvana!) open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the LA Sports Arena in late 1991, nor attending the second traveling Lollapalooza at which they played in 1992, and being unable to get a ticket for their show at the Chicago Stadium in its waning days in 1994, I have now seen the band 16 times since first catching them live at Milwaukee's Summerfest on the greatly abridged (due to their anti-Ticketmastet crusade) 1995 tour. 

(I wish I also went to their Soldier Field show in '95.)

Having seen them many times in Chicago--including on both nights of 2-night stands multiple times--and
in such disparate places as Madison Square Garden, the Toledo Sports Arena and an outdoor amphitheater in Cincinnati, I've never not loved Pearl Jam live, and have often found them to be fantastic.

But honestly, if they have ever been better than they were on Monday, I'm glad I don't recall it, for I had--anew, perhaps--one of those absolutely rapturous "this is one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen" sort of evenings (for at least the 4th or 5th time this year).

It's easy to say the length of the show had much to do with my ecstasy, but as they tore through "Mind Your Manners" as the second full song--following "Pendulum" which was preceded by the brief instrumental "Red Bar" that would factor in later--I turned to my friend Paolo and exhorted, "They sound fucking phenomenal!"

After a blistering "Corduroy" and the title track off Lightning Bolt, Eddie Vedder brought on a special guest "from the great state of Illinois."

This was Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, who had just appeared at the Cubby Bear on Friday night with the Foo Fighters (I wasn't there but Paolo was) and featured heavily in the first episode of the Foos' Sonic Highways show on HBO.

Rather than rip through "Surrender," Nielsen strongly abetted Pearl Jam's scintillating take on The Who classic, "Baba O'Riley." This is a song PJ has long done as an occasional late encore, but one of the best songs in rock history was delivered only 5 tunes into the show.

I thought the following "Brain of J" was a rather rare (though welcome) choice, but must admit I didn't catch on that the band was playing 1998's Yield album front-to-back until midway through; I just enjoyed the interesting song selections--"Faithful," "No Way," "Wishlist," "Do the Revolution," "In Hiding," etc.--and how good EVERYTHING sounded. (The "Red Bar" instrumental comes from Yield, which is why it began the show; it was not played again in album sequence.)

I've always liked Yield quite a bit, but that Pearl Jam could play 12 straight songs from it without a noticeable lull served to showcase not only how many quality songs the band has written, but that even with Vedder two months from turning 50, bassist Jeff Ament & drummer Matt Cameron past it and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready getting close, the band remains as powerful, potent and professional as ever, maybe even more so.

Clearly still at the height of their powers--and with Vedder in phenomenal voice--Pearl Jam delivered searing, sensational versions of "Even Flow" and "Rearviewmirror" (video below) among the songs that closed out the main set.

Thirteen more songs would still follow.

I won't name them all as you can see Pearl Jam's Milwaukee setlist here, but along with a number of quieter cuts with the band seated, it was a joy to hear four great ones from Ten--"Jeremy," "Porch," "Black," "Alive"--their 1991 debut that remains my favorite.

But even citing how good the band sounded, how long they played and how strong their material is still doesn't quite capture why this was such a superlative show.

It's hard to convey this aptly in writing, but the group--and especially Vedder--just seemed to be having the greatest time in the world, which added to why shlepping to and from Milwaukee sandwiched between nights of 4-5 hours of sleep was completely worth it.

Among other mirthfulness, Eddie saluted Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who was on hand but never on-stage, took a jibe at Bears quarterback Jay Cutler--Evanston native and huge Bears fan Vedder declined to don a cheesehead thrown at him, though did later put on a #10 Packers jersey--nostalgically recalled that Old Milwaukee was the first beer he'd ever tasted (at the age of 8), dedicated a song to an audience member whose lover was away in Korea tending to her ailing father and noted that bassist and huge basketball fan Jeff Ament thought the #10 of ex-Bucks star Bobby Dandridge should join the retired numbers hanging in the rafters.

And at one point, Vedder even waded out into the center of audience on the main floor.

Anyway, I could go on and on about how good Pearl Jam was, but it's three nights after the show and their tour has ended, so it's not like this review is acutely actionable.

I won't even bother trying to assess where the show ranks, this year or among all the concerts I've ever seen.

All I know is that it is among the rare ones that was absolutely perfect.

This video won't really give you a sense of what it was like to be at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, but it's a great clip--posted to YouTube by NMAfreak--of Pearl Jam's blistering version of "Rearviewmirror."

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