Pearl Jam steps up in their first trip to Fenway
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Crowds were swarming everywhere. Merchandise stands were set up days in advance to peddle all kinds of specialty t-shirts, jerseys, hats, stickers, posters and cards. Lines snaked out of every bar and restaurant in the surrounding blocks. There was a buzz, as they say, and it was palpable.
This kind of scene around Fenway Park isn’t that uncommon. Pop out of the T at Kenmore on Opening Day or during a pennant race and it’s just as likely to run into a similar scene.
But the Red Sox were out in Los Angeles, so this was a concert weekend instead. On the shirts, the socks were replaced by lightning bolts, and the iconic red Boston “B” was more often than not a “PJ.” After years of rumors, Pearl Jam was finally playing the park and hordes of their maniacally devoted fans were taking in every possible angle of the event. It’s a dream pairing that came to life, the landmark stadium and a band quietly celebrating their 25th year together by playing marathon shows night after night.
Pearl Jam had two nights booked on the Sox’ center field lawn, and everyone was determined to make the most of the occasion. And on Friday night, as the first strains of “Release” filled the yard, an obvious tension seemed to rise up from the crowd and float back out towards the Charles River. This was real, and it was going to be special.
Without being scientific or even devoting too much time to the research, the rumors of Pearl Jam playing Fenway Park began sometime in 2003, about seconds after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage in the first major set of concerts to take place on the field the Boston Red Sox have called home for so long.
Every year after, then, began a tradition of floating that Pearl Jam was definitely playing Fenway this year. Sometimes there were dates, or rumors of booking agents making the right calls to the right people. Sometimes long Red Sox road trips seemed to line up with gaps in the band’s touring schedule. And as the likes of Jimmy Buffett, the Rolling Stones, Phish, Dave Matthews, James Taylor, Zac Brown Band, Springsteen again, Tom Petty, New Kids on the Block, Zac Brown again, Foo Fighters and any number of country bands who confuse me came, occupied center field and went, so would go another summer without Seattle’s finest on the stage.
This annoying parlor game came to an end this winter, when the band announced in January that they’d be playing two shows in Boston at the park (and later, two more shows at Chicago’s Wrigley Field). And after a furious scramble for tickets through the band’s Ten Club and the tickets.com virtual waiting room, I had my seats for both nights. I could sit back and visualize how the band would come off in a place many consider to be holy ground.
Concerts at Fenway Park are now a 13-year-old phenomenon and as frequent as any extended Red Sox road trip. But there’s still an air to just about any show there that can’t be matched in New England. It’s clearly more intimate than Foxboro’s cold and massive Gillette Stadium, with just its tightly packed grandstand wrapping around the field and some rooftop seats as a garnish. But outside of Tanglewood, the sound quality at least matches and exceeds several of the region’s acoustically engineered outdoor venues. Take the history of the park, throw in a band motivated to live up to its own reputation and a special weekend is suddenly in the works.
Early on during the first show, Eddie Vedder’s story to the crowd should have gone like this: “I grew up in Chicago as a Cubs fan, but that’s the National League. And since we all picked an American League team to root for, I always rooted for the Red Sox.”
But because Vedder underestimated Boston’s knee-jerk reaction to boo anything not Boston, the story went, “You know, I grew in Chicago as a Cubs fan—”
“… Are you seriously booing the Cubs?”
Now, Vedder is laughing and shaking his head. “Have you already forgotten about your fellow sufferers? Anyway, I was going to say that I’m a Cubs fan, but that’s the National League, and we all had an American League team, and mine was the Red Sox—”
And so came the wild cheers. He name-checked former center fielder Fred Lynn and mis-identified his predecessor Reggie Smith as Reggie White, but he paid his respects to the Sox over the two nights, and then some. He let former pitcher Bronson Arroyo play acoustic guitar on “Black” and had a uke brought out for him by retired third baseman Kevin Youkilis. The aforementioned Youk brought out a Sox jersey with his no. 20 and nickname “YOUK” on the back for Vedder to wear during “Lukin” and “Not For You” on Sunday as well.
The hometown heroes didn’t stop at baseball. Pearl Jam paid tribute to Aerosmith by pulling out one of their early, thrashing classics in 1977’s “Draw the Line” in the first night’s second encore, and reprised it the second night with Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton joining in. And on “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis came out to shred through every solo on the song.
Special settings aside, guitarist Mike McCready seemed to throw himself into both shows at a more furious clip than usual. He used an especially fast reading on “Mind Your Manners” on the first night as an order and an excuse to shred the solo in an inspired speed metal/punk amalgamation. He broke out a behind-the-head solo on “Even Flow” later, and in the first encore he dove headlong into the spacious, soaring air of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”
But it was on the second night that he really let loose. Early on, he punctuated every gap in “Nothing As It Seems” with delay heavy pyrotechnics that seemed to shake the aging green walls of the park. He bounced even farther off the wall on the second night’s “Even Flow” (one of only five songs to be repeated from Friday’s setlist), he did most of the heavy lifting as the band dusted off “Deep” and he went into full, frantic exploration on a version of “Immortality” that left the crowd floored. In case it wasn’t obvious, the entire band was firing on all fronts. But as usual, it was McCready who was unleashed to truly rope the crowd and leave them gasping for air.
From there, the songs themselves carried the day. Going well beyond 30 songs each show, the band pulled out nuggets each night — “All Those Yesterdays,” “Strangest Tribe” and a rare cover of the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” on the first night, “Nothing As it Seems,” “Angel” and “Footsteps” on Sunday — to sit alongside the songs that have become anthems despite the band’s best efforts. Every time “Corduroy,” “Alive” or “Do the Evolution” pops into the set, every time a crowd of 15,000 or 30,000 starts screaming the chorus to “Why Go,” every time the fans shout the refrain of “We all believe” during “Faithfull,” it’s immediately a special moment and a memorable evening.
It all came together as the band wrapped up this road trip with the stadium lights on in full. “Yellow Ledbetter” was called on to close it out, and while Vedder, clad in that same “Youk” jersey, a backwards Sox cap and a baseball glove, played catch with fans in the front rows, McCready took the opportunity to blend his closing solo into a full, Hendrix-leaning version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in reverse of your typical night out at the ballpark.
To say it was all a long-time coming would be an understatement. Thirteen years of rumors had finally come to fruition, and on two perfect New England summer nights, Pearl Jam brought their best from the Northwest to America’s oldest ballpark. As two pillars of their worlds, neither the landmark or the band let the other down.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org