And now I rub my eyes, for they have returned: Pearl Jam plays the South
By MATT BERRY
STATIC and FEEDBACK staff writer
I think it’s safe to say that my displeasure with Pearl Jam’s touring itinerary the past couple of years is well documented. So news of a 10-date East Coast tour gave my summer plans the jolt they needed.
That lasted for all of about five minutes. That’s when I saw the date of their nearest show: June 16 at the Colonial Center in Columbia, South Carolina. Now let’s disregard the fact that this meant that I, a red-and-black-bleeding Bulldog through and through, would have to venture into the heart of Steve Spurrier territory to see this band again after a long five-year wait. That date ... wasn’t something happening then? Something really important?
The amount of obscenities that entered my mind when I realized that June 16 was the date I had planned to take the LSAT was enough to make George Carlin rethink his famous Seven Dirty Words list. The one day of the summer that would make things a living hell, and that’s what they picked. I tried everything. I went through my plans like the complex logic games I had been studying endlessly in preparation for the test. Should I take a trip to Washington instead? Should I hold out for the next tour? Should I move the LSAT to October? Eventually, I came up with the best answer I could: none of the above. Why not just take the test in Augusta, a quick hour’s drive to Columbia? It seemed so simple at the time.
Add to that simple plan my girlfriend having to drive to Augusta to meet me the day of the concert (hours before show time), the strain the LSAT can put on your brain for weeks leading up to the test, and the fact that the test could have gotten out as late as 7:30, and things can get a little hectic. The worst case scenarios ran through my head. What if there’s a wreck on I-20 eastbound? What if the test takes too long? What if some loser at the box office accidentally gives away my tickets (laugh all you want at that one — it happened to my girlfriend’s Georgia football tickets two years ago)?
Luckily, I got out of the test at 5:00, pulled into my hotel at the same time as my girlfriend, and drove a smooth one hour to Columbia. We got the tickets, walked to our seats, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
My haywire day was seemingly over. We sat and enjoyed Kings of Leon, who I hadn’t really listened to prior to the show. They were everything you’d want and expect from a opening band. They came out, rocked the place for about forty minutes, and then cleared out in a timely manner so the main event could take the stage. And boy, did Pearl Jam ever take the stage.
The lights went down, the band trickled out from backstage, and Matt Cameron’s drum kit rolled into “Can’t Keep.” I can’t say I really expected that one, but it was a surprisingly good opener. Afterwards, Cameron went straight into the most recognizable Pearl Jam drum intro, “Why Go.” The band’s performances early in 2003, the last time I had seen them, have been referred to by some as lacking in energy. Having no barometer, I hesitated in making similar statements. Until that song. From that point on, the band played with a ferocity I hadn’t seen by any band in person. With a setlist that left diehards stunned and casual fans bewildered, the band proceeded to blow the faces off the thousands of fans inside the arena. The guys may be entering their 40s, but they haven’t sounded this good live in more than 10 years, if ever.
Highlighted by rarities like “All Night” (which the band debuted a few nights earlier), “Education,” and “I Got Shit,” those of us in the fan club seats stood like we didn’t know what had hit us. We just jumped and down, banging our heads and pounding our fists. Even a song like “Even Flow,” which the band has played so much that by 2003 it was played like everyone just wanted to get it over with, was livelier and featured blistering jams between Cameron and guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard. When the band decided to slow things down, they picked some of their best downbeat tunes in “Small Town,” “Present Tense” and “Off He Goes, which has always been one of the band’s best all-around songs.
Eddie Vedder couldn’t give up a chance to tweak the political interests of the Southern crowd. He compared the hometown mascot (the Gamecock) to a certain sitting president and asked why Europeans thought Southern conservatives were ignorant and proud of it (“I thought Northern conservatives were, too”). His longest speech of the night came as he explained that the band has had an emotional few weeks. He spoke of how Tomas Young, the paralyzed Iraq veteran the band had befriended in the last couple of years, had slipped into a coma and was now facing an even more uphill battle. He took the opportunity to criticize the human and financial costs of the war, before adding “I won’t apologize for using this stage to say these things, but I will thank you for listening.” The smattering of boos in the predominantly red-state crowd continued for a few minutes, with applause and the sing-along anti-war song “No More” covering up most of the dissent. The crowd never got as angry as some of the 2003 crowds did. Maybe it’s the growing unpopularity of the war, maybe it’s the fact that the conflict is not as new as it was back then (the Denver “fiasco” and other shows where the band was booed were barely a month after the start of the war), or maybe it’s because Vedder has toned down the rhetoric a little bit. But I think it’s safe to say that politics did not ruin anyone’s night in Columbia.
The band played a blistering set of nearly three hours. Not a single person was disappointed. Vedder was his usual self: slightly drunk, slightly goofy, slightly angry. He shook his guitar angrily at his tech when he thought it was out of tune. It wasn’t. He later figured out that it might’ve been him the whole time. He got so frustrated that he pulled the strings out of his Fender Startocaster at one point. Though Vedder thought he was horribly out of tune, he and the rest of the band glided through the main set and three encores seamlessly.
Each set seemed like it would never end. The crescendos of “I Got Shit,” “Better Man” and “Save You” all seemed like they would lead the band off stage, and yet they just kept playing each time. After the band answered the chants of “One more!” after the second encore (which I’m pretty sure I started, not to brag or anything), they slowed the concert to a spectacular halt with “Indifference” and were on their way. And so was I.
Still in a music coma, drenched in sweat, and with a brain that hadn’t recovered from the test earlier in the afternoon, I drove the hour back to the hotel and got just enough sleep before my 9:30 checkout. Whatever acrimony I felt towards Pearl Jam for their tour omissions was long gone. I had feared that the band would not give one of its top tier performances that they typically save for large cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle. But this small tour is allowing the band to stretch itself to the limit every night. From all indications, the band is letting loose with every trick in their arsenal, unleashing varied setlists brought to life at a fever pitch. And what’s amazing is that they’re doing in places like Tampa, Virginia Beach, and (luckily for me), Columbia.