Pearl Jam | 09.20 & 09.21 | Seattle

Words by: Court Scott

Pearl Jam :: 09.21.09 & 09.22.09 :: Key Arena :: Seattle, WA

Pearl Jam :: 09.20.02
Drop In The Park :: Seattle
It is exactly 17 years and one day from the first time I saw Pearl Jam and here I am again. On September 20, 1992, I was a wide-eyed 16-year-old, one of 30,000 fans bearing witness to a show by the nascent band at the now famous 'Drop in the Park' concert in Seattle's Magnuson Park. I'd listened to Ten backwards and forwards and was immediately and overwhelmingly drawn to the band's feral energy, their unprocessed, uncompromising sound, and both the hopelessness and redemption in their lyrics. The band's raw resonance and Eddie Vedder's keening growl were the perfect soundtrack to my mild teen angst. It is now September 21 and 22, 2009 and I'm in Seattle's Key Arena to see one of the world's most popular and widely appreciated rock 'n' roll acts as they unleash their previous catalog and new tunes off Backspacer, their brand new album at two sold-out hometown shows.

What qualities can sustain a band's appeal across the years from a teenage girl to a 33-year-old? In the almost two decades since their inception, my bond with Pearl Jam has grown from my ears - a pure love of the music - to my heart - an admiration based on their commitment to stand up and speak out for people, causes and policies they support. They consistently create unpretentious, relevant music. Although they've struggled to eschew the trappings of stardom, 2009 finds Pearl Jam at greater ease than ever before with a degree of enjoyment that only comes with hard won perspective.

A strong moral compass has led them to their greatest successes and a few failures along the way, but more than many of the bands I've followed, Pearl Jam is a fan's band. They are mine and they are yours, and they will not let you forget it. There's a timeless quality to some rock 'n' roll and Pearl Jam has, in large part, cracked that songwriting code. Their albums may be where their political and social convictions take shape, but it is their live shows where those messages are vividly interpreted and powerfully delivered. During the two shows at the Key they played material from each of their nine major releases except the somewhat inaccessible Binaural (2000), and affirmed to those in attendance why Pearl Jam endures.

After gaining notoriety in the early 1990s for their debut, Ten, as well as their live shows, it was their anti-commercial, egalitarian bearings, allegiance to music lovers, and naiveté in 1994 that led them to take on Ticketmaster, seeking lower ticket prices and fees for their fans. Following a long struggle and the sacrifice of millions of dollars in tour revenues, Ticketmaster was effective in curtailing the band's romanticism. In retrospect, however, Pearl Jam was far more successful than they were given credit for. Ticketmaster's public relations nightmare never really went away and their monopolistic commitment to commerce and convenience rather than art continues to be widely questioned.

Stone Gossard - Pearl Jam :: 09.21.09 :: Seattle
By Karen Loria
Pearl Jam's promise to their fans persists, and with lean lighting and a minimalist backdrop, both nights' shows delivered, beginning with Boom Gaspar's inviting keys and summoning the rest of the band to the stage for "Long Road" and "Sometimes." Standouts from Monday were "Corduroy" with Mike McCready imitating Pete Townshend's windmill guitar moves; Backspacer tunes "Got Some," featuring Vedder's frenzied yarl; and "Amongst the Waves," a first-rate fist-pumper that found drummer Matt Cameron deep in the pocket paired with McCready's too-short solo. After conceding nervousness, Vedder announced, "It's nice to be playing these songs for the first time." "Rearview Mirror" had a sparse, deconstructed jam where McCready let loose with a stratospheric solo and the final encore of "Alive" was huge and full of stage-strutting pomp. "Inside Job" saw McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard gathered around Cameron's drum kit, heads down for a sonic regrouping. "Hail Hail," "Daughter," "Off He Goes" and "Down" were each solidly delivered, but the lesser known (read: non-Ten or Vs. tunes) seemed to fall on deaf ears - Monday night's audience was downright apathetic compared to Tuesday's. "Given to Fly" was dedicated to opening act Ben Harper and Relentless7.

Vedder prefaced a hard-charging "The Fixer," the first single off Backspacer, by saying he took himself to Target and bought a copy of the album on vinyl the day before. In addition to national independent retailers and iTunes, the band arranged a distribution deal with Target for Backspacer to the exclusion of other big-box stores. "Now, if we could only get them to sell record players!" he laughed. Tuesday night Vedder dedicated "Spin the Black Circle" to Seattle's Easy Street Records' owners, reiterating his support for, and the necessity of, indie record stores.

A truly special addition on both nights was a string quartet for "Just Breathe," a gorgeous, yet slightly syrupy Vedder number and "The End," two of the 11 new tunes on Backspacer. "Thanks for classin' up the joint," Vedder joked to the quartet, which included Matt Cameron's wife, April. Both tunes are acoustic and highly reminiscent of Vedder's work on the Into the Wild soundtrack. Frankly, I'm not sure they belong on a Pearl Jam album, but live with strings they were an undeniable treat. Underutilized keys player Boom Gaspar's warm Hammond B3 contrasted with Vedder's plaintive, exposed vocals on "The End." Quipped Vedder of the Seattle-only offering, "Ya know, we know some people," and subsequently welcomed to the stage the Syncopated Taint Septet horn section – Skerik, Craig Flory, Hans Teuber and Dave Carter - for a screamin' cover of The Who's "The Real Me." They did this again the second night, and Vedder dedicated it to Bruce Springsteen for his birthday, and they crushed it just as effectively.

Syncopated Taint Horns with Pearl Jam :: 09.21.09 :: Seattle
By Karen Loria
Overall, the second night of the tour was the stronger performance. The anxiety was gone, the energy up and the band was more at ease with the older material, and the crowd responded in kind. Noting that Tuesday was the 50th time Pearl Jam had played Seattle – a number that seems surprisingly low - Vedder gushed, "I hope we can get it right!" before barreling full speed ahead into "Dissident" off Vs.

Each night the setlist had 27 songs, but the Tuesday night show featured more crowd favorites as well as rarities including a huge "Why Go" and "Lukin," which was 60 seconds of punk bliss that slowed into a Cameron drum breakdown and then merged into "Not For You." It's funny. Cameron has been in Pearl Jam since 1998, following a Spinal Tap-esque lineage of drummers, but I still have trouble thinking of him as anything but the monster rhythms behind Soundgarden.

No Code's "Present Tense" saw Ament prowling in circles and McCready shredding on his Flying V guitar as the crowd pumped their fists. During a barely-contained "Go" that closed the set, McCready, like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix, effortlessly delivered a solo playing behind his head. Backspacer's "Supersonic" was played with alternate lyrics in homage to the Seattle Supersonics, whose home is the Key. As McCready's filthy guitar riff slashed through the punkabilly number, the crowd enthusiastically concurred, "Yeah, yeah, ye-ah!"

The band's inclusion of fans, affectionately called the "Jamily," is evident not only through their live shows, authorized bootlegs and recorded collateral, but their Ten Club, an international union for fans. Ten Club members enjoy access to material unreleased to the general public, priority ticketing, newsletters and other perks. So strong is the band's interaction with their fans that Vedder took time on Monday night to give a pick to a six-year-old kid, because little fans grow up to be big fans.

Eddie Vedder - Pearl Jam :: 09.21.09 :: Seattle
By Karen Loria
While the loyalty to fans remains evident, Vedder's usual political commentary was in shorter supply. He showed restraint Monday night, speaking only about local political races, motivated by a phone call with Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, and the challenges President Obama continues to face, subsequently launching into "World Wide Suicide." He couldn't help himself, however, in demonstrating a finger on the pulse of pop culture and the recent VMA flap, saying, "We, too, think Kanye's a jackass."

Though they've gone up against big business and have been more outspoken and altruistic than most bands, Pearl Jam doesn't take the kind of musical risks that jam bands do. Go to a couple shows in a row and you will be blown away with the band's tight jams, McCready's inspired, smart solos, Gossard, Ament, and Cameron's intuitive interaction and lengthy setlists. But, chances are you're going to hear songs under four minutes, some standards and maybe a repeat or two. Cases in point were the completely uninspired "Evenflow" from Monday night's show that found Vedder stepping off stage for a smoke break, the new tune repeat "Unthought Known," and "Do the Evolution" as an encore both nights. But what the "Evenflow" lacked, the audience made up for during "Betterman." Vedder elicited the first two verses without coaxing or accompaniment, and similarly, Tuesday night's "Black" had one of the biggest, most enthusiastic crowd sing-alongs I've witnessed.

Overall, I felt that with several of the new tunes simplicity has been exchanged for economy and some of the soul of Monday night's live show was lost in the brevity. While straight ahead versions work with some of the shorter, punk tunes I would still rather they weren't played exactly as they are on Backspacer. I suppose that until fans become familiar with them this is to be the case, but there's certainly room for exploration without becoming indulgent. Gaspar's keys add a mellow undercurrent that balances out Gossard, McCready and Vedder's heavy, churning guitars. He should be given a wider berth, especially given the clean, softer, less confrontational material found on Backspacer compared to their previous efforts.

As Tuesday's show ended with a brisk "Porch," started by a Vedder solo, and a strong yet predictable "Yellow Ledbetter," the arena lights came up. Slowly everyone but McCready, too busy channeling Hendrix during a searing "Star Spangled Banner," stepped to the side of the stage, gazed around the arena, waved to long-time supporters and savored the presence of their fans. This is the pact that Pearl Jam aficionados have formed with the band. They will rock us and we will continue to be a part of their show.

Pearl Jam :: 09.21.09 :: Key Arena :: Seattle, WA
Long Road, Corduroy, Gonna See My Friend, Got Some, Hail, Hail, Amongst The Waves, Daughter, Even Flow, Johnny Guitar, Unthought Known, World Wide Suicide, Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, Off He Goes, Down, Save You, The Fixer, Life Wasted
Encore 1: Just Breathe, The End, Inside Job, Rearviewmirror
Encore 2: Given To Fly, Do The Evolution, Better Man, The Real Me, Indifference, Alive

"Just Breath" and "The End" featured the Octava String Quartet
"The Real Me" featured the Syncopated Taint Horn Quartet

Pearl Jam :: 09.22.09 :: Key Arena :: Seattle, WA
Sometimes, Why Go, All Night, The Fixer, Dissident, Johnny Guitar, Faithfull, Lukin, Not For You(Modern Girl), No Way, Unthought Known, Unemployable, Comatose, Insignificance, Present Tense, Got Some, Go
Encore 1: Just Breathe, The End, Black, In My Tree, Spin The Black Circle
Encore 2: Supersonic, Do The Evolution, The Real Me, Porch, Yellow Ledbetter (The Star-Spangled Banner)

"Supersonic" sung as "Supersonics" with new lyrics about Super Sonics basket ball team
"Just Breathe" and "The End" with the Octava String Quartet
"The Real Me" with the Syncopated Taint Horn Quartet

Pearl Jam is on tour now; dates available here.

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[Published on: 9/30/09]

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