Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alive, All the Way: Pearl Jam Knocks a Pair of Prodigious Blasts Out of the Friendly Confines -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Pearl Jam
Wrigley Field, Chicago
August 20 & 22
(both shows attended)
@@@@@ (for each & both)

Pearl Jam's phenomenal first album, Ten--the uniform number of the band's original namesake, Mookie Blaylock--was released 25 years ago Saturday, on August 27, 1991.

Though I recall reading a Rolling Stone article around the time of the album's release, I didn't pay much attention or acquire the CD until after Nirvana's Nevermind broke open grunge--and alternative music for that matter--upon its release on September 24 of that year.

Living in Los Angeles at the time, I'm pretty sure I bought Nevermind and Ten in the fall of 1991, as I was familiar with both bands when they co-opened for that Red Hot Chili Peppers that December at the L.A. Forum (foolishly, I didn't attend).

So I was well "into" Pearl Jam as Ten became a blockbuster and "Alive," "Even Flow" and "Jeremy" became staples on Alt Rock radio and MTV.

I believe I bought their second album, Vs., immediately upon release in October 1993 (a month after Nirvana's In Utero) and likewise got all their subsequent albums rather instantly.

Having moved back to the Chicago area by then, I acutely rued not being able to get a ticket to a March 1994 concert at the old Chicago Stadium not long before it got torn down, but beginning in 1995--in Milwaukee, not the Soldier Field show on the tour short-circuited by the band's battle with Ticketmaster--I've now seen Pearl Jam 18 times.

Including shows on both Saturday and Monday at Wrigley Field.

This makes them the longest running band that I've loved, in real-time, from their first album on.

(I didn't get into U2 until at least War or Under a Blood Red Sky, having been oblivious to their debut, Boy and follow-up October. Similar scenario with the now disbanded R.E.M., and while I've been a big Green Day fan since they broke with 1994's Dookie, that came not only after Ten but two of their own indie releases. Living in L.A., I didn't hear of the Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 debut Gish, though became a big fan with 1993's Siamese Dream.)

So I didn't need much convincing about how great a band--and concert act--Pearl Jam remains even after all the members have turned 50, especially as their October 2014 show in Milwaukee was one of the best I've ever seen.

But I got a double dose of proof at my favorite place on earth, made all the more special by how great the Cubs are playing this year and Eddie Vedder being one of the most prominent diehard Cubs fans (he was born in Evanston).

And though I'd seen Pearl Jam at Wrigley in July 2013 and will never forget sticking around until 2am after a rain & lightning delay of nearly 3 hours, these shows went a good bit smoother.

In terms of pacing, Saturday's show felt a tad uneven--perhaps exacerbated by my having a seat somewhat obstructed by the soundboard tent--but lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes, ending with Vedder singing his ode to Cubdom, "All the Way" alongside his favorite player from childhood, Jose Cardenal and 3 children of Ron Santo, before a final blast through the Who's "Baba O'Riley."

Cheekily referencing their 2013 show at Wrigley, I loved the early cover of the Beatles' "Rain," and smiled at "Bee Girl," saluting the star of Blind Melon's "No Rain" video.

Along with several boisterous ballpark singalongs to anthems such as "Jeremy," "Alive," "Black," "Even Flow," "Better Man," "Corduroy" and a cover of Cheap Trick's "Surrender"--all repeated on Monday, which otherwise featured 29 songs not played on Night 1--the show included several wonderful non-musical moments.

A soldier and his girlfriend were brought onstage and a marriage proposal unfolded; former NFL player Steve Gleason, beset by ALS and the subject of a new documentary, spoke electronically and quite life-affirmingly; Vedder dedicated "Light Years" to Gord Downie of the Canadian band the Tragically Hip, who were playing their last show the same night due to Downie being beset by terminal brain cancer.

Of the 34 songs played Saturday, 8 were covers--including the Ramones' "I Believe in Miracles," Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," Little Steven's "I Am a Patriot" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" beyond those already mentioned--but not only couldn't anyone say they were cheated, this coalesced with an evening in which Vedder clearly was reveling in childhood heroes, both baseball and musical.

Though 20 minutes shorter in heeding to Wrigley's 11pm concert curfew rather than blowing past it, Monday night's show was more of a musical tour de force.

After "Oceans," "Footsteps" and "Off He Goes" provided a slow-groove opening triptych, the band began rocking at full-tilt far earlier than on Saturday, with early reprises of "Better Man" and "Corduroy" leading into "State of Love and Trust," "Why Go," "Animal" and "Given to Fly."

Subsequent highlights included "Wishlist," "Mind Your Manners," "Got Some," "Rearviewmirror" and guitarist Stone Gossard handling lead vocals on "Don't Give Me No Lip."

Both nights seemed to find the band relaxed and enjoying themselves in a venue sacrosanct to Vedder--and me--and as on Saturday, Monday brought many reminders of why I relish Pearl Jam well beyond their music.

Routinely verbose and gracious, Vedder delayed the music for about 5 minutes twice, first in highlighting several charities the band was supporting with a portion of ticket sales--and matching donations from Cubs Care and Theo Epstein's foundation--and then in reading letters he'd received conveying how much the band meant to certain attendees suffering from great illnesses and hardships.

Prior to "Man of the Hour," he noted that Monday would have been the 49th birthday of another famed Seattle frontman, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, who passed in 2002 after long battling serious demons.

And amid the band's most fervent rocker, "Lukin," Eddie stopped the song cold to point out a jerk in the audience who was harassing a woman and have him tossed.

Unless it was some kind of weird dream, I also think Dennis Rodman showed up onstage, and even cradled Vedder in his arms.

All in all, it made for a pretty amazing couple of nights. Each show was fantastic in its own right--you can view Saturday's Pearl Jam setlist here, and Monday's here--but in varying greatly, the two-night stand validated my double-dipping. (This marks the 5th time I've seen Pearl Jam in pairs.)

Saturday night I went solo and and enjoyed sitting behind home plate next to an ardent Pearl Jam follower in from Toronto; Monday I was accompanied in the upper deck by my most frequent concert companion, Paolo. Both scenarios and perspectives considerably abetted my delight.

In one of the odd ways that music is a constant thread throughout my life, on Monday in the baseball stadium of the team in first place in the NL Central, Pearl Jam ended the show with a cover of the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling." This seemed like a strange choice, but I now believe Eddie was slyly referencing the Cubs and what seems like a great chance to win their first World Series in 108 years.

And just 8 days a week earlier, Paolo and I saw Paul McCartney play the same song in another NL Central ballpark, Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Presumably without the same agenda.)

It's also true that on Monday before I left work for the concert, I learned that my current stint as a contractor will be coming to an end sooner than anticipated. While far from tragic and nothing I haven't experienced before, it was news for which yet another phenomenal concert by one of my favorite artists provided an emotional antidote.

And when, nearing 11:00pm, I sang along heartily as Pearl Jam blazed through Neil Young's, "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," I could help but consider it my reason for being.


And someday we'll go all the way.

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