Five years later, Pearl Jam gives Madison Square Garden an encore
By JOSHUA LIEBERSON
STATIC and FEEDBACK correspondent
After much anticipation, excitement, and five years of waiting, today was the day that Pearl Jam returned to Madison Square Garden. I woke up like any other Tuesday, put on my suit, and faithfully showed up on time to work. For the next three and a half hours, I did the best I could to stay on point and concentrated at the legal tasks in front of me, knowing full well it was down to hours before I would ascend upon the Garden for perhaps an epic performance by my favorite band.
Seeing your favorite band there is something that defies description. It is much like watching your favorite team in the playoffs: you are not quite sure how far they are gonna go, but this is the very essence of why you are a fan and why you’ve always hung in there. The Garden is Game 7 of the World Series, the 4th quarter of the Superbowl, the BCS Championship game, and the final round of the U.S. Open all rolled into one. And Pearl Jam is Tiger Woods.
After the greatest slice of pizza in my life (for the record: a penne vodka slice with fresh mozzarella at a pizza joint called Carmine’s in Brooklyn), I headed to the subway and towards Manhattan. There were some major delays on the train line, and I thought about panicking when I realized that the show wasn’t starting for another five and a half hours. I almost forgot that I am a completely irrational Pearl Jam fan who has to arrive hours early to check out what the scene looks like (and to remind myself there are, in fact, far bigger fans than I).
The scene at the Garden was surreal: lines of people waiting for any possible cancellations, and an even bigger line to purchase a poster. For those not familiar, Pearl Jam has different specialized posters printed for nearly every show they play, and they are done by the Ames Brothers, who turn concert poster art into a true collector’s item. Unfortunately for me, what started out as a fun buy when I started going to Pearl Jam shows (note: at my first concert in 1996, I bought one after the show had ended, and there were plenty left over) has turned into an insane phenomenon, where grown men and women stand behind a barricade like it’s TRL, and the Garden staff handing out wristbands for a later purchase of these posters are greeted like Greek Gods.
The atmosphere seemed to lighten up much more once inside the venue. Everyone seemed genuinely excited about the upcoming show. I went with my friend Bagel, who is a veteran of two prior Pearl Jam shows. However, he had never experienced them at this place, and he was in for a fantastic ride. Next to us were two guys getting their first Pearl Jam experience, and it was quite refreshing. One of them asked me whether they were going to play Better Man, which I replied that they would likely fit it in. That sort of excitement and newness is refreshing when you are used to sitting next to a guy complaining about the setlist two nights ago and claiming that they’ve lost their edge because they didn’t play “Dirty Frank” or “Goat.” I think going into these shows, at my age and lucky fortune in seeing them a ton of times, I have learned to just sit back and enjoy whatever it is they want to throw at me.
On to the show.
Opening was Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. It took me a while to warm up to them, but by the end of the set I thought they were pretty good. They had great energy and while most people weren’t even in the venue yet, they really warmed up those who cared enough (or really who came to see if Eddie Vedder was going to do a solo pre-set) to show up early.
The moment now comes: the opening music starts up, and you can hear the crowd suddenly get excited. Then the lights go out, and it is time. Now, the crowd is thundering! The band took the stage, and seemed like Eddie Vedder said something in the mic, but the roar of the crowd is literally too loud. I didn’t hear a word. What I do recognize after a few seconds are the opening chords to “Hard to Imagine.” I knew this was coming, as they had opened with it a lot during the tour. It sounded great. The band seemed ready to rock the house down tonight, and I could just sense they were very cognizant of the moment, even from the outset.
The band rocked through a strong version of “Save You,” with the crowd really coming to life and enjoying the band. I knew this crowd was something special when on a more recent song, you could hear most of the place singing along with Vedder and really getting into the festivities. But a whole new level would come right away, as the band jumped into “Why Go.” The crowd, in unison with the band, completely nailed this song, and for the first time since they last graced the stage, the Garden was literally rocking, as the entire place was shaking due to the crowd singing, dancing, throwing themselves around, and generally doing anything to produce a “devil is coming home and the world is coming to an end” ruckus. I turned to my new first-timer friend to my left and simply said “welcome to Pearl Jam at Madison Square Garden.”
The first new sight of the night for a Pearl Jam show came next, as Eddie Vedder invited three backup singers onto the stage to play “All Night”, a song he introduced as a song they just started playing live this tour, but that it never sounded so good as this afternoon when these singers helped out. While I imagine many purists being upset with the change up, I thought they had a positive effect, complimenting Vedder’s voice and recreating the loops that Vedder used on the studio track. There was even a soul-like back and forth between Vedder and the singers that served as a pleasant surprise.
To no one’s surprise, the band rocked through a shaking rendition of “Corduroy,” where once again everything was rumbling and the crowd was in a zone I had never seen before. They sang along with an energy that would not calm down at any point, and was rather overwhelming as they drowned out Vedder at different points in the first set, including the sing-along “Small Town” and “Given to Fly.” The backup singers then came back out for “Who You Are,” and once again were a pleasant addition to the stage. After incredibly rocking and energetic versions of “Whipping,” “1/2 Full” and “Even Flow,” the latter once again shaking the Garden’s foundation, the band played an epic “Present Tense,” highlighted by the crowd completely covering up Vedder momentarily losing his timing with spot-on vocals, and followed by an epic jam. Another sing-along with “Daughter” was next, tagged with a trippy back-and-forth between Vedder and the crowd. Closing out the first set was the George Carlin-dedicated “Do the Evolution,” the song to which Pearl Jam had first shaken the Garden in 2003. And once again, the place looked like all hell had broken loose. We were welcoming it all with open arms.
After a short break, the band came back on to attempt a cover of the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.” They, and the crowd, completely nailed it. It is hard to imagine anyone recreating the roar of Roger Daltrey’s voice in the song’s chorus, but Vedder may have topped it. And the energy exponentially increased as the band responded to Vedder, the crowd responded to Vedder and the band, and Vedder and the band responded to the crowd. This was literally a concert nirvana.
Up next, Bagel insisted we were hearing the opening chords of Oasis’ “Wonder Wall,” but it was in fact a full band rendition of “W.M.A.,” complete with the back up singers. The band really did this song full justice, switching things up just enough to make it fresh, but staying true enough to the original that the spirit of the song still rung true, and the band’s chemistry was phenomenal. A rocked-out “Leash” followed, with the crowd yet again on top of every word and chord like their lives depended on it. Seeing this in a 22,000 person crowd, to this extent, was beyond overwhelming. No words I can type here can recreate what it felt like to be there for this, and maybe that is for the better ultimately.
After a rocking “Spin the Black Circle,” Vedder spent the next few minutes attempting to put into words the experience of growing up with vinyl records, quipping that the sleeve’s use as a tray for drug use was a strong reason to choose it over getting music with a piece of plastic that looks like a credit card (he also compared it to having sex with a real woman versus a piece of plastic to end the hilarious but barely-intelligible rant). The band closed out the first encore with “Wasted Reprise” and a rocking “Porch” that once again lead to delirium.
Vedder came back out by himself to talk some politics, and played the song “No More,” written for Tomas Young, a war veteran who was now disabled as a result of his service in Iraq, and was currently in a coma. The band then came back out and went through a fully jammed-out “Crazy Mary” and rocked through “Comatose.” Vedder then invited onstage C.J. Ramone, of the iconic New York punk band of the same name. C.J. took Jeff Ament’s bass and jammed with the band through a strong version of “I Believe in Miracles,” a song that Vedder played for Johnny Ramone’s answering machine five years earlier on the same stage. The band closed out the second encore with a rousing “Alive,” reveling in watching 22,000 fist pumps simultaneously to Mike McCready’s jam at the end.
Contrary to my expectations, the house lights did not come back on. The show was not over! They came back out for a third encore, and had the place rocking, stomping, singing, screaming, and just about any other adjective that describes complete bedlam with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The house lights finally were coming on, as the band closed out the nearly three-hour epic set with “Indifference.” Even with a crowd clearly exhausted, but still wanting more, the crowd reached ear splitting levels as seemingly the whole world was ready to “scream my lungs out till it fills this rooooooom!”
Thoroughly exhausted but on complete adrenaline from a show as incomparable as this, we headed out to FATS, a random bar we saw on 33rd Street. When we entered, the memories of a run this grand in the past were right on the televisions inside, as they played the DVD from the first show at the Garden in 2003. As we spent the rest of the night kicking back and hanging out with some good fans, we wondered aloud whether tonight could have just topped that night.