Pearl Jam redefines the faithful at Wrigley Field
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I spent a week panicking.
When the announcement of a Pearl Jam show at Chicago’s Wrigley Field came this past January, I had a few moments of wishing I could make it. After a few key conversations, that became the realization that I had the ability to make the trip and experience what had the potential to be a tremendous night.
The appeal was enormous. With three years gone since my last Pearl Jam concert, I was itching to see the band live again. As a lifelong baseball fan, an opportunity to see Wrigley Field couldn’t be missed, much less for an event with this kind of historic pull. And I had a few close friends who have moved to the city independently of each other, many of whom I’d met thanks to traveling around watching and writing about Pearl Jam.
The city itself was a draw. The planning for the trip evolved from a long weekend into a nine-day trek that included visiting a lot of friends, eating lots of incredible food and taking down more than a few sturdy drinks in the company of said friends and food. As far as eating goes, Chicago is likely my favorite city in which to eat, with incredible restaurants dotting the streets up and down the grid. There were plenty of bizarre meats and interesting veggies and weird seafood concoctions I hadn’t had before, and like any great dining experience, tackling it all with a bunch of cool people made the evening what it was.
The drawing for fan club tickets began on Jan. 23, and a week later, my name was pulled and my credit card duly charged. I had two seats in my name for Wrigley’s upper deck on July 19. The Chicago trip was a go.
Understanding the financial potential inherent in these shows and declaring that I’m not naive to the fact that these gigs bring in an incredible amount of money, it’s still possible to appreciate the marriage of these historic venues and musicians who have crossed into the “living legend” threshold. Bruce Springsteen’s stand at Fenway Park last year was an incredible musical display made all the better by Fenway’s open, cozy confines. Friends of mine have seen Springsteen and Paul McCartney in Wrigley Field’s unique layout in the past couple of years, and the reports have been the same. There aren’t many classic stadiums still standing in America, but Boston and Chicago lay claim to two of the more iconic venues.
In the past, I’ve referred to the overwhelming sense of significance surrounding everything related to this band as the mayhem. The first visible sign of that came on Wednesday afternoon, when the pop-up merchandise stand opened up outside Wrigley Field along Addison Street. With most of the t-shirts and hats and only two of the four limited-edition posters on sale, there was still a line stretching down the street and back to the corner when I arrived around 4 p.m., and it took just over an hour to reach the front.
Thankfully, Pearl Jam fans tend to be friendly folks, and I met a nice couple from Calgary who had also made the trip for the show. For the next hour, we talked music and hockey and swapped stories on some of the other places we’d been and shows we’ve seen. It was a nice reminder that, beyond the bizarre competitiveness that some of the faithful tend to display online — one-upping each other with show counts and how many times they’ve heard “Hard to Imagine” live and other such nonsense — rarely bubbles up in person. In the moment, the garbage goes away and we’re all just sweaty dudes and dudettes and conceivably adults standing in 90 degree heat waiting for t-shirts.
That level of dedication and resolve would be called into duty in ways none of us would have expected later. That roiling heat and humidity built to a cacophony of thunder and lightning that decided to glide over Chicago’s North Side a little past 9 p.m., throwing a wrench in Pearl Jam’s set and leaving most fans sweating and annoyed for more than two hours.
The scene just after 2 a.m., during "Rockin' in the Free World."
The setting that Wrigley Field provided was almost overwhelming, especially to a first-time visitor. The blue-tinted statues of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and Billy Williams greets baseball (and, occasionally, rock) fans through the gates. Even with a stage planted in center field and the base paths covered up by blue tarp, the aesthetic of a venue that’s been host to so much baseball history came through. The centerfield scoreboard was visible to the fans sitting in the lower sections through the backdrop-free stage, and the clock peeked above its awning. And there’s the ivy, of course, running along the outfield walls.
That Pearl Jam was going to be playing this place was a lot to take in. Walking up the ramp and along the concourse, I involuntarily stopped myself mid-sentence to mutter out loud.
“Goddamn it, this is Wrigley Field.”
And shortly after that, the show was off, and immediately, there were surprises in the setlist. With the sun beginning its descent behind the third-base stands, the band began the slow roll into “Present Tense,” the third in a string of songs meant to methodically lure in the audience in what became an opening set, of sorts. But the minimal structure of “Present Tense” that builds into this momentous release of sound and energy became a harbinger of sorts for the night. The band kept the mid-tempo material running until they were hurried off the stage and Wrigley security officials ordered the field audience into the concourses before the thunder and rain hit.
And that’s how it was for the next two and a half hours. A mass of people huddled together, hurried and confused and waiting.
There isn’t much else to be said about the rain delay other than to say it was miserable. The band did the right thing, and with their history safety is and always will be paramount, but the actual mechanics of the delay weren’t ideal. There were reports from folks I spoke to about confusion and lack of direction on the field as fans were ordered into the tunnels and under the outfield bleachers. Up in the stands, all we could do was sit there, sweat and, hopefully, talk and try to pass the time.
Updates didn’t come from the stage from most of that time, and with phones dying left and right, it was hard to get any information the band might’ve been putting out through social channels. The Wrigley concession folks had run out of bottled water, and it took an unnecessarily long conversation to convince them that, because it’s 10 p.m. and it’s still 95 degrees out here somehow, yes, I would like to buy a cup and I want them to fill it with ice and water. Earlier in the week, it had been hot in the city in that way that sweltering summer days are hot. In Wrigley’s upper deck, it felt more like some kind of bizarre science experiment to pack 45,000 bodies in one space and see how they react to temperatures near 100 with a humidity index somewhere south of the rainforest. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
Around 11 p.m., we started to really get antsy and less optimistic that this would really happen. A rescheduling wasn’t in the cards — Kelly Clarkson and Jason Aldean had the place booked for Saturday — and with me leaving the city on Sunday morning, even if there was another show, I wasn’t going to see it. When I started to finally run out of Pearl Jam and baseball and history trivia, I started to feel like this night might be doomed.
Then, finally, signs of life. Roadies suddenly flooded the stage and started taking the tarps off the instruments and amps. The giant PA towers were raised back into their position at the top of the rig. The fans who had been crammed into tunnels were unleashed back into the pit. And while the last few fans were working down the rows, Eddie Vedder came out to pay tribute to the Cubs, Wrigley Field and some lofty legends.
The band has always been acutely aware of history, whether it’s the reputation of a city or venue or the story of the songs themselves. On this night, Vedder’s love of the Cubs and the respect shown Wrigley Field was obvious, and homage was paid as the fans were being scuttled back to their rain-drenched seats on the field. Vedder, changing into Jose Cardenal’s no. 1 Cubs jersey, sang “All the Way,” his ballad to the field and the team and the notion that someday, for Cubs fans, that big payday is coming and it will have made all the waiting worthwhile.
Meanwhile, the band proper had work to do after a two-and-a-half hour delay nearly squashed the night. The setlist was thrown out, I imagine, and the songs came pumping out furiously. “All Night” was an obvious choice to restart the festivities, and “Do the Evolution” really worked to get the crowd back into it.
Amidst all that, the bizarre setlist variations continued. Vedder’s solo “Setting Forth” gave way to a furious, extended “Corduroy.” “Faithfull” served as an affirmation of the fans’ dedication for sticking through the rain and confusion during the long break. And, amazingly, scanning the crowd it was hard to tell who, if anyone, bailed and left during the pause. Even when the house lights came on for the closing “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the stands and field looked as packed as they had for the opener. We were all here for the same reason, and it didn’t take much to get that party vibe back.
Those that stuck around were treated with some truly rare bits from the Pearl Jam archive. Mike McCready’s soloing during “Eruption” gave Vedder a moment to inconspicuously grab his accordion for “Bugs,” just the third-ever live rendition of that song. Their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother” popped up in the encore. “Hold On” made one of its infrequent appearances in the opening set, and three songs from the upcoming Lightning Bolt — “Mind Your Manners,” the title track and “Future Days,” which featured Brendan O’Brien on keyboards — were included in a setlist that was absent the radio-heavy hits like “Alive,” “Better Man” and “Daughter” that might be expected at a stadium show.
And in the process, they acknowledged some of their own history. Following “Mother,” an emotional Vedder spoke of the amazing sense of freedom he felt the first time he walk into the park as a child, how it felt to be accepted into Seattle’s music scene and by the band members themselves, and how grateful he was for the opportunity. And from there, the band trickled into “Chloe Dancer,” the piano-driven introduction to Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns,” a poignant reminder of the tragic circumstances that inadvertently led to the formation of the band.
All this goes to say, this wasn’t a typical stadium show, and the band’s response to the lengthy delay showed a willingness to reward the hardcore fans who stuck with it (and again, most did) and the ability to take a set of some of their stranger material and burn through, leaving the sensation that nothing had happened. Truly, in the middle of “All Night,” it felt as though they had been playing all night long.
Around 2:15 a.m. the process began of winding through Wrigley Field’s ramps to the gate and finally Clark Street to find our way home began. I met up with the rest of our group outside a Taco Bell, and we started walking in the general direction of home while trying to find a cab, pointlessly at first and eventually successfully when we reached the intersection of Ashland and Irving Park. But that walk, with the streets dotted with exhausted, elated fans and more than a couple of folks screaming for reasons only explained by the fact that it was now 2:45 in the morning, was another glimpse of this city at work. It’s gigantic, its blocks and neighborhoods seem to go on forever, and even when things are closed, it’s still working and moving and making statements. It was one more chance to appreciate the scope of an impressively huge city. And it left plenty of time to process everything that went down.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to this show and this week in total. There was plenty of waiting — waiting for the days to mark down, waiting at the bar outside the park, waiting for the band to start, waiting for the lightning to stop, waiting for a cab, waiting, waiting, waiting. But most of that built up to the first moment the band walked on stage in one of the bigger shows they’ve done in this country, in this 99-year-old stadium and in a city where they have so much history.
The band took their spot, and the opening strains of “Release” filled the air while the sun still shined down on a sweat-drenched crowd, and in that second, all that waiting felt like it had been nothing. I stood there and hoped that no one noticed that I might’ve been getting mildly emotional and that the water in my eyes was not, as it had been all week, perspiration. It was a cathartic moment, seeing the band and hearing that song.
Waiting dominated most of the time, with all actions and decisions meant to properly fill up the time until some sort of objective had been reached. And with the first notes of that song, everything that had gone into planning that trip, hopping on planes, eating at restaurants, taking in great works of art and just hanging with friends came into focus; the realization that this is what started all that was momentarily overwhelming.
The final night was spent at a friend’s house, and for most of the evening there were six of us, first outside for a cookout and later inside, braving more heat and humidity to spin some records, drink wine and scotch, tell stories and jokes, hang out, laugh, make promises and, at the base of it all, enjoy the company we had.
The heat, the lack of information, the long hours and the miles trekking around the city were all small prices to pay for the time spent with people I care about deeply. It was reinforced several times over before and after the concert, but sitting in that upper deck and hearing the refrain of that song was a blunt reminder that I had this opportunity because I happened to take to this band in high school, that I followed it through as I got older, that I made contact with members of the community and found some amazing people that I now get to call friends.
None of this happens quite the way it has if I hadn’t picked up that first cassette. The band would have played this show or not played regardless of my presence in the stands, but without the band, I wouldn’t have made the friends I’ve made and been in quite the position I am today. It goes beyond mere fandom. It has had a tangibly positive effect on my life. On a personal level, even before they stepped on the stage at Wrigley Field, this show was a celebration. I just didn’t immediately realize what I was celebrating.
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com