In the moment, Pearl Jam thrives
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
My lips are shaking my nails are bit off
It’s been a month and a day since I've heard myself talk
The setting is the XL Center in Hartford, always and forever known to me as the Hartford Civic Center, once the home of Ron Francis, Sean Burke and the Hartford Whalers, who skipped town 13 years ago. What remains in their wake is a increasingly decrepit relic of 1970s architecture, complete with cramped bathrooms and fading grey paint serving as a back drop to banners and retired numbers.
On the stage at the far end of the rink are a collection of amps, monitors, microphones, drums and guitars, and Pearl Jam, in their twentieth year, will put on their first show in this building, one that’s typically half-filled for minor league hockey games and close to full for college basketball.
On this night, however, it is packed from end to end, ground to ceiling and across the floor, each seat’s occupant a screaming fan not-so-subtly demanding the music being made in this moment. They form walls that rise up and close over the stage. They are overpowering. They are insisting that the band exceed, or at the very least match, their enthusiasm. Really, they are demanding the moment.
All the advantage this life's got on me
Picture an empty cup in the middle of the sea
We’re 12 tunes deep into a show that will see 27 songs spread out over a main set and two extended encores. There have already been four songs played from their new record, Backspacer, and there will be four more after this. They’ll reach back a few times to their debut Ten, they’ll cover Van Halen and they’ll sit down for a couple of acoustic numbers.
In this moment, they’re playing “I Got Id,” a number quickly crafted with the help of Neil Young back in 1995.
And I fight back in my mind, never lets me be right
I got memories, I got shit, so much it don't show
I’m 15 years old, and I’m in the music department of Circuit City in Dartmouth, Mass. I’m browsing the racks for CDs by my now-favorite band, and have just discovered an odd-looking disc. A two-song EP called Merkinball, with a black-and-white photo of a wrecking ball on the cover, and strange credits on the back that seem to indicate that Young plays guitar on one song and the pump organ on another. The price tag is $3.99.
Oh, I walked the line when you held me in that night
I walked the line when you held my hand that night
The guitars are crashing now. Chords are building and cresting, limbs flying, sweat pouring. The noise grows into a beautiful cacophony, bouncing between the speakers and ricocheting back onto the huddled masses, moving with the rhythm. The volume goes up, the musicians, heads down and focused, are wringing each piece of music out of their instruments.
An empty shell seems so easy to crack
Got all these questions, I don’t know who I’m ever going to ask
So I'll just lie alone and wait for the dream where I'm not ugly and you're looking at me
I’m 27 years old, and I’m listening to their new album. For the first time since I discovered their music, I am uninterested. Very little here moves me. To these ears, the lyrics sound trite, the melodies bland and contrived, the music tired. It shines like a new Chevy sedan, and has all the bite of a box of cereal. There is nothing here that there once could have been.
It’s not just that I don’t like a group of songs. It’s that I feel like I just lost a significant part of myself.
And I stare you back, oh, little I’ve seen there
If just once I could feel loved, oh stare back at me yeah
Everyone writes about the fans when describing a Pearl Jam show. I’m no different; about 400 words ago, I did just that.
But there’s a reason the fans get as worked up as they do. On stage, this band is firing on all cylinders. And at its forefront is Ed Vedder, telecaster in tow, straining his wine-coated throat to give each lyric its due, pure guts and guile. This is real, and meaningful. The sound coming off the stage is loud, unhinged, raucous and beautiful. Thoughts of whether or not they could be losing their creative edge, or that perhaps they just didn't make a great album this one time, are far away.
But I walked the line when you held me in that night
I walked the line when you held my hand that night
I’m 24 years old. It’s about 3 a.m., my friend is asleep in the passenger seat, and I’m navigating my 1998 Nissan Altima down I-95 North back to Quincy, Mass., after watching the band play live in East Rutherford, N.J. I’m somehow both buzzing and struggling to stay awake. It was my fourth show in two weeks, an amazing two weeks that served up some of my favorite memories as a fan. During the middle of the first set in Boston, show number three on this run, this song was played.
I walked the line when you held me close that night
I paid the price, never got to hold you in my life
I’m 28 years old, life changes abound, month-old beard scratching my jaw, hair humid and curly, standing in an aging hockey arena witnessing a band breathe new life into my favorite song. They are giving it time and meaning and context. They are working to turn a moment preserved in plastic, born of creative intervention, into a living being, filling 16,000 pairs of ears simultaneously, including their own. They are giving the song. And it continues to give in this moment. Chords crashing, picks flying, drums driving.
And in the moment just before the finger-picked coda brings the piece to rest, I have only one thought:
“This cannot end. This can never end.”