Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lollapalooza Day 3 (Part Two): The Most Important Band in the World...

A rock world that tries to align itself with Pearl Jam is one with hope.

No offense to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who closed Lollapalooza last year—they’re the ultimate Professional Festival Closer, and they’re good at what they do. But while RHCP have energy, Pearl Jam has passion, be it political or emotional, and music is getting more passionate and relevant by the day. In a festival where bands were taking political stands starting almost first thing Friday morning, Pearl Jam was the only band who could have been chosen to finish things right. And they did so.

When I was in 9th grade, I was in a typing class (oh baby) with some upperclassmen, and Pearl Jam was on its way to play Oklahoma City, an hour away from my hometown. This was a huge deal. There was no way in hell my parents would let me go—I didn’t even ask—but a few juniors and seniors went to the show and couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks afterward (their trip to the show also led to the fantastic moment of one of the upperclassmen falling asleep in class and having his head actually hit the typewriter...phenomenal stuff).

This was 1993.

For whatever the reason— the political vibe in the air, the success of “World Wide Suicide”, or simply an outbreak of nostalgia, there’s no questioning that almost 14 years later, seeing Pearl Jam is an even bigger deal. And unlike 14 years ago, Eddie Vedder seems happy to accept the role of being the guy that almost 200,000 people want to hear from. He gets increasingly more comfortable in his skin with each passing year, and while he’s played to big crowds for the last 16 years or so, he seemed genuinely touched by the number of people watching, cheering, and singing along to songs from every era of the band’s career to date, from Ten’s “Why Go” and Vs’ “Rearviewmirror” to Riot Act’s “Save You” and Pearl Jam’s “World Wide Suicide.” Add extra adrenaline and passion to what has always been earnest, loose-but-intense, emotional live show, and that made for an amazing way to finish up Day Three of Lolla ’07.

I’ve got to admit something. For a millisecond, I was torn about letting people back on the bandwagon. Though 1995-2005 was supposed to resemble something of a ‘dark period’ for Pearl Jam, they continued to sell out amphitheatres and arenas and put out interesting, emotional works for the enjoyment of their ever-loyal fanbase, and as a member of that ever-loyal fanbase, part of me resented everybody trying to reclaim their seat on the train—I’m a music snob, that’s what we do. However, as the weekend progressed and I heard more and more about how “I’m so looking forward to Pearl Jam” and “They’re gonna be so awesome”, I started realizing that Pearl Jam is a band that people want to say they’ve seen—in the best way possible—and I found the music snob in me starting to get drowned out by the side of me that wants as many people as possible to realize how fantastic this band really is. And anybody who saw them Sunday night would have had trouble coming up with a different adjective than that. Fantastic.

Pearl Jam took control of the weekend from the very first note. At a majority of shows, Pearl Jam has historically started with a slow-burning song—something like “Release” or “Sometimes” or “Long Road”—before jumping into a long series of hard rockers. Not Sunday. Sunday started with one of the band’s first hard rockers, “Why Go.” Be it a reference to Eddie being in Chicago—a childhood home—or a statement of “Why go home yet, festivalgoers? We’re going to be here a while” (my guess is the former), it kickstarted the festivities beautifully. Things didn’t slow down for a while, nor did PJ’s propensity to jump from album to album, as “Corduroy” (Vitalogy), “Save You” (Riot Act), and an insane “Do the Evolution” (Yield) followed. The momentum finally took a breath with “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” (Vs), one of the better sing-alongs in the PJ catalog. Every fan knows all the words, and the “I just wanna scream...HELLO!” part is always fun to sing. The band then hit the gas again for a murderous “Severed Hand” (Pearl Jam), and six songs into the show, six different albums had been represented.

One reason PJ has maintained the almost-religious fanbase that they have is the way they nod to those fans by breaking out unexpected rarities on an almost show-by-show basis. They play so many different songs over the course of a tour, and they do so even when they’re playing for almost 200,000 fans who are expecting to hear the hits. You’ll get most of the hits, but when some might have been expecting “Jeremy,” instead they god “Education”, a rarity from the B-sides album, Lost Dogs, that had only been played in a show twice before.

With the rarities mission accomplished, it was back to the hits. "Evenflow" would have gotten tired years ago if not for Mike McCready. I said on Saturday that The Roots had the best guitarist at the festival--Captain Kirk. Sorry, Kirk...that was a silly thing to say. There's no problem with being #2 (and for the record, I guess the Black Keys' Daniel Auerbach would have to be #3). McCready would be #1 at any festival in the world. He is an absolute powerhouse, both in talent and showmanship. Pete Townsend wind-up? He does that. Solo behind his head? That too. Duel with everybody on stage at some point? Yup. Until seeing PJ live, Walsh thought of Pearl Jam as the Eddie Vedder Band. As powerful a figure as Eddie is, when he's on stage, he's only one-sixth of the band. Stone Gossard is just about the perfect rhythm/co-lead guitarist. Jeff Ament is all kinetic energy at bass. Since taking over drum duties in the late-'90s, Matt Cameron has taken PJ's performances to a new level. Even Boom Gaspar, the old surfer dude that Eddie met surfing in Hawaii, holds his own on songs like "Love Boat Captain" and "Crazy Mary." They are a complete band, but really...McCready is a step above the others.

After McCready's typical perfect solo, Cameron got his chance to shine on "Evenflow" with a solo of his own...one that coincided so well with a fireworks display starting south of the park that I thought it was planned.

Next up were “Given to Fly” and a killer “World Wide Suicide” before the band unveiled a new ‘song’ in response to BP/Amoco’s decision to—in the name of “expansion”—dump more waste into Lake Michigan, one entitled “Don’t Go BP/Amoco.” Things wound down during the main set with a fun “Lukin”, loud singalongs in “Not for You” (fans always love having an excuse to scream “F--- you!”) and Daughter (complete with an “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” tag at the end) and “State of Love and Trust” (from the Singles soundtrack) before closing with “Alive.”

Last year, Pearl Jam recorded an episode of VH1 Storytellers, and he discussed how fans completely changed the meaning of “Alive” for him. From Billboard:

"In the original story, a teenager is being made aware of a shocking truth that leaves him plenty confused," he said of the tale, based on his own teenage discovery that the man he believed to be his biological father was actually not. "It was a curse -- 'I'm still alive.'" But as fans quickly turned the title phrase into a self-empowering anthem, particularly at Pearl Jam concerts, Vedder said, "they lifted the curse. The audience changed the meaning for me."

Lord knows that the “Alive” performed at Lolla was the ultimate celebratory moment. Eddie is still alive, the band is still alive, hope is still alive for the future, et cetera. It was a pitch-perfect way to end the pre-encore set.
I told Walsh beforehand about my favorite Pearl Jam moment (before last weekend, anyway): Alpine Valley in East Troy, WI, 6/21/2003. The crowd was fantastic—singing along to everything and having a grand old time. The euphoric memory of the crowd singing all of “Better Man” to Eddie was something I’ll always keep with me. Well, Alpine Valley holds 20K-30K people. Multiply that by about 6, and you get the Lolla version of that memory. Another way that fans have somehow changed the meaning of songs: “Better Man,” a song about an abusive relationship, has become the only song more celebratory than “Alive,” a song with the refrain of “I’m still alive, but do I deserve to be?” It’s such a happy moment in a Pearl Jam show, and it lived up to all expectations in Chicago.

Encore #1 wrapped up with “Crazy Mary,” a song featuring an envigorating solos duel between McCready and organ player Boom Gaspar, a rousing “Life Wasted”, and the always-epic “Rearviewmirror.” But Pearl Jam doesn’t just play one encore.

Another of the more endearing things about Eddie Vedder is how is emotion and passion don’t prevent him from straying into cheesiness sometimes. He’s not part of the ‘ironic’ generation. This became clear during the first song of Encore #2. A documentary called Body of War will be finding its way into theatres soon. It's the story of an Iraq veteran named Tomas Young, bound to a wheelchair and speaking out against the Iraq war. Vedder had written music for the movie, and he brought Young out to greet the crowd and call them to action. It was an inspiring moment. Then Vedder brought Ben Harper out to perform a song from the soundtrack, entitled "No More." For better or worse, it is a cheesy, folky, anti-war song by any stretch of the definition.
What he has seen is hard to believe
And it does no good to just pray
He asks of us to stand
And we must end this war today

With his mind, he's saying, "No more!"
With his heart, he's saying, "No more!"
With his life he's saying, "No more war!"

With his eyes, he's saying, "No more!"
With his body, he's saying, "No more!"
With his voice, he's saying, "No more war!"

Yeah, nothing's too good for a veteran
Yeah, this is what they say
So nothing is what they will get
In this new American way

The lies we were told to get us to go
are criminal, let us be straight
Let's get to the point where our voices get heard
Behind the White House gate
Cheesy lyrics or no, hearing Vedder and Harper cry out the chorus and seeing Young smiling, moved by the moment, was really cool. Eddie, however, did milk the moment a bit much, however, getting the crowd to sing along to the chorus for a bit too long and seemingly losing some of the crowd. As a fan of music, it was maybe a slight misstep. However, as a fan of imperfections, I loved how it showed Eddie's inner idealism and vulnerability. During the 2003 tour, he spoke out on Bush and the Iraq War on a nightly basis. Four years later, this grizzled rock star still wants to do everything in his power to change things.

There was one more song on the docket for Encore #2, and it wasn't "Yellow Ledbetter," the song that has closed a majority of PJ shows over the last decade-plus. It might have been on the setlist, but it wasn't necessary, not after the brilliant debacle that was "Rockin' in the Free World."

Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" is the greatest protest song of the last 25 years, and Pearl Jam has pretty much made it their own. However, Eddie had been watching Iggy Pop earlier in the day, and he turned this into one of the most unique renditions. Ben Harper was already on stage, as was Tomas Young. So why not invite everybody else who was watching from backstage? It's not quite Iggy's "invite the entire crowd up" or anything, but...yeah, it was chaos nonetheless. Apparently Eddie happened to have like 75 tambourines backstage, so every new temporary PJ member had an instrument.

So the camera's panning across the people on stage...they come in all shapes and sizes, but there's only one 6'6 black man with nose rings on-stage. Everybody in our group has the same thought at the same time: "Was that Dennis Rodman??" Yes, yes it was.

I guess the randomness of seeing Dennis Rodman picking Eddie Vedder up on his shoulders was a relatively fitting way to end the evening. If the perfect Pearl Jam show has great performances, rarities, crowd interaction, emotion emotion emotion, politics, and complete unpredictability, I guess Sunday was the perfect Pearl Jam show.

So as I was saying...a rock world that tries to align itself with Pearl Jam is one with hope. They are students of classic rock who try to use their celebrity as they most earnestly see it, and after a weekend of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Electric Six, Against Me!, the Polyphonic Spree, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, The Wailers, Femi Kuti & The Positive Force, The Roots, Patti Smith, TV on the Radio, and every other band striving to make a positive social impact in their music, giving them Pearl Jam as a template was the least Lollapalooza's organizers could do. And I'm really glad I was there to see it. Walsh and I have all but already bought our 2008 tickets.

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