Pearl Jam shares the love with Massachusetts in Worcester
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Pearl Jam pulled into Worcester, Mass., for the third and fourth dates of their North American tour this week. They’re touring in support of their tenth studio album, Lightning Bolt, and this two-leg tour will take them up and down the two coasts of the United States and Canada, and so much had to go right for this to work out just the way it has.
In the small scale, there are scheduling headaches that are probably unimaginable to the layman. Lining up that many 15-20,000-seat arenas with the proper vacancies in just the right order must be a skill on par with playing a piano concerto or throwing a 1-2 slider down and in on a pull hitter with runners on base. Once the venues are booked and contracts are signed, arrangements have to be made for hotels, and staff have to be hired to take care of equipment and the detail work. And from there, the band members themselves have to be healthy, motivated and ready to play.
I thought about all of that when I remembered my tiny part of this exercise. For these two nights, I had to make special arrangements at work so that I could be in and out early enough to beat most of the rush-hour traffic out of Boston heading west to the center of the state. Because of the precarious nature of one-way streets and highways, I had to make sure my car had gas before I left. I had to bring enough money and make sure I’d eaten before I got to downtown Worcester, where there aren’t a lot of great eating options. I couldn’t forget directions and accidentally drive down 495 or 122. And all these things had to go right. And that was just my small part of it.
The collective experience of the 15,000 or so fans in attendance each night had to be similar if undeniably different. They had to secure the time, get tickets and execute a plan to be in attendance. And they had to bring their collective frenzy to the equation to match the ridiculous music that was being made on stage. And this has to happen repeatedly.
This is just one slice of that story, a relatively small one for the band and a huge one for the writer. But it’s the case of practically everything going right, when worlds collide and some of the best music is made for the people that want it made. Pearl Jam rolled into Worcester, a town that most outside of New England likely don’t think of, and turned it into mecca for two weeknights in October.
“The future’s bright
Lit up with nowhere to go”
Getting to the DCU Center early was especially important on the first night, because I’d been able to secure tickets in the pit for the first time. Tickets are typically doled out via seniority by Pearl Jam’s fan club, but for the pit, once you’re in, you’re in. All that separates a fan from the gate to the front is determination and timing.
My friend and I arrived, and we were about six or seven heads back, comfortable enough to not be pressed, but close enough to the point that I couldn’t imagine having been this close at some of the other shows in my personal history. We made friends with our neighbors, talked about all the things there are to be talked about when Pearl Jam is less than an hour away from doing their thing, and I tried not to linger too long on the fact that I could practically count the strings on Eddie Vedder’s guitar, just sitting there in front of the drums waiting to bring an entire building to its collective knees.
Being that close to the stage offered a perspective on the band I’d never experienced. Standing just left of center stage, we had a great view of Stone Gossard at work. As a performer, Gossard typically looks very serious as he plies his craft, apart from perhaps the little in-place marching that he’s been known for while he drives the rhythm. But up front, Gossard’s role in Pearl Jam’s live unit is more apparent. He clearly spends a good amount of time joking with Vedder, Matt Cameron and Jeff Ament, all inaudibly to the audience but loud enough to keep the band in good spirits. All the while, he’s chugging along, working as hard as I’d always assumed, taking solos when its his time and keeping the structure rock-solid for such a tight performing unit.
And if ever there was a good night to see this band, this was it. They were in rare form immediately, pulling surprises out of the woodwork and keeping things sharp, loose and intense all at once. The band dropped “Leash” on the crowd, a rarely played screamer reserved for one of the final encores, if ever, toward the end of the main set, sending the entire place into a frenzy. They dusted off “Nothing As it Seems” and let Mike McCready rip off some blazing guitar runs that filled the old place. After they treated the crowd to No Code’s “Red Mosquito,” we watched as Vedder ran from station to station calling audibles, throwing “Whipping” and “Corduroy” into the set, and he felt free to stray from the plan as the evening went on and on.
That freedom, always apparent from far away and assumed from listening to the bootlegs and watching the DVDs, was confirmed from this near-fly-on-the-wall perspective. Whether it was via Gossard’s joking or Vedder’s improvisation, Pearl Jam knows how to make the most of the moment. And above all, they enjoy the process. They’re completely into everything they do. The music they make together wouldn’t sound nearly as good without that.
“Do you have any other plans for tonight, or is it okay to keep playing here,” Vedder asked the crowd. “We could always stop early if you want to watch the Dodger game or whatever.”
Pearl Jam’s last appearance in the state was a May 17, 2010, show at Boston’s TD Garden. Where the band would typically add a second night if the first sold out, they were limited to a single show that year thanks to deep playoff runs by the hometown Bruins and Celtics. This time around, they were pushed to Worcester’s DCU Center, a slightly smaller hockey rink that the big city’s Garden, located about 45 minutes away, thanks to the circus, of all things.
“Where are my manners?” Vedder asked, appropriately, following “Mind Your Manners.” “Good evening, hello Wor-chester! I’m fuckin’ with ya. Woo-ster? Wor-ster? I’ve heard about 10 different things. All I know is that it’s a pretty nice and cozy room and I’m very glad you all made it for tonight.”
For the record, it is “WOOH-ster,” though not as much emphasis on the “Woo” as the spelling might suggest. It’s just one of those things. If you’re from here, you know how to say it. If you’re not, convincing the newly minted that it’s not “WAR-chester” takes some work.
Beyond that and the difficulty with pronouncing the names, there was a palpable appreciation for Boston and its surrounding cities. They play here a lot, and Massachusetts has seen more than its share of memorable Pearl Jam shows, and it’s a relationship that extends both ways. The last name of the late Howard Zinn, a true Massachusetts giant, adorns the pick guard of one of Vedder’s telecasters. On the first night, before “Yellow Moon” in the encore, Vedder relayed a story that they were working on mixing the song in Seattle when they heard the news of the attacks at the Boston Marathon on April 15. On the second night, he introduced the fans to Dick, a member of their Massachusetts security team who has been typically assigned to the band’s dressing room since they started playing places bigger than Axis.
And in a sure sign of knowing his audience, he also did his best to relay Red Sox scores as appropriate, delivering good news early on the first night and consolations the second after the Detroit Tigers tied the American League Championship Series at two games apiece. But his best moment came in relaying his excitement for having been able to attend Game 2 of the series at Fenway Park, which featured a “miraculous” comeback thanks to a grand slam by a certain Red Sox icon.
“I now have a strong belief in God,” Vedder said. “He’s Dave Ortiz and he’s number 34.”
But most importantly, he wore a mark that’s become iconic in New England. Visible on his right sleeve on that first night was the “B Strong” logo that the Red Sox have worn on their sleeves for most of the season in tribute to the victims of the attacks, the heroes who worked to save so many people and the resiliency of the entire region. Almost instantly, the Red Sox’ “B” and words “Boston Strong” came to define the area’s response to adversity and cement the fact that the city wouldn’t relent to terror. It’s visible on hats and t-shirts everywhere. It might seem hokey to someone who’s on the outside, but it means everything here.
If he doesn’t understand that, he’s doing an incredible job of hiding it. When the crowd saw the patch on his jacket, it triggered the first thundering cheer of the night.
“Understand what we don’t know
This might pass, this might last, this may grow.”
The second night had a distinctly 1970s feel to it, or at least what I imagined a show by a big-time headliner in a hockey arena would have felt like then. The ushers and other folks working were friendly but mostly out of the way, not checking tickets too closely in the seats and not seeming to crack down too hard on anyone who might’ve lit up a cigarette or other similar non-tobacco smoking material. But part of that is due to the band, and the identity they’ve forged, plowing through marathon sets sans opening act with cool lights but no backdrop to speak of on stage. All that matters is the that the guys on stage are hard at work and that the seats are packed with screaming lunatics who care about nothing else.
And sitting up in the balcony afforded the extra vantage point of surveying the crowd along with the band, taking in the little syncopated motions the fans themselves have coordinated through years of attending shows and then talking about them outside of arenas, through the web and, earlier I have to imagine, through mail in tape and CD trades.
Being up in the cheap seats also allowed me to take in the full spectacle of their opening routine. For a band who has never opted for an elaborate, U2-style stage, they make excellent use of light, and their custom of playing the first song in near total darkness worked to incredible effect on “Pendulum,” a dark, piano-driven tune that transforms live thanks to extra heavy guitars and the bowed effects of Mike McCready. The band was cleverly backlit by floating, oversized lightbulbs enough to make their presence known, but it left the entire arena in the dark, propelled by only the music.
The light ticked up a bit, appropriately, for “Low Light,” and then they were on the stage in full-force for “Given to Fly” as the energy built up at the start of another marathon set. Thanks to the toll of the previous night and the early intensity of this show, Vedder started professing that his voice was giving him trouble and that he was trying to pace himself. Though, apart from a version of “Lukin” where he either forgot a verse or his throat failed him on that particular screamer, any vocal struggles wouldn’t have been noticeable to the crowd.
But that clearly influenced some of the setlist choices. “Porch,” “Black,” “Jeremy,” “Even Flow” and “RVM” all feature extended instrumental passages in their live incarnations, and where typically only a few of those five songs would appear on a given night, all five were called into duty, shifting some of the heavy lifting to McCready, who responded with enthusiasm and searing solos, as usual.
And it was McCready who ended the stand, soloing in Hendrixian manner on “Yellow Ledbetter,” off on his own at stage left, head tilted up as he wrangled every note out of a well-worn ’59 strat. By now the houselights were on, the bridge between the band and the crowd more blurred than ever, and in a short while, everyone would be released back into the streets of Worcester, off to their cars and buses and nearby apartments, depending.
“Easy come and easy go
Easy left me a long time ago.”
There were a number of little hiccups that could’ve derailed any of these two nights at any point. I almost lost my wallet at a concession stand on the second night and ran back from my seat only to find it still there under a table, untouched. Work was busy but manageable to the point that I could get out on time both nights. The night before the first show, nerves kept me up for most of the night, tossing and turning and getting water and putting on headphones and taking off headphones and counting sheep and doing everything that’s ever entered my brain in an attempt to get at least four hours of sleep before the sun came to greet Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, I slept through a couple of alarms and had to scramble to shower and get out the door to make it to work on time.
So many potential road blocks, averted in the name of attending a concert. Likewise, so many things could have gone wrong through the past 22 years to make it so that Pearl Jam wasn’t making this two-night stand in Central Massachusetts. That cassette recorded by Gossard, McCready, Ament and Cameron might have easily missed Vedder’s hands. The band could never have been signed. They could have folded under the pressure of the spotlight after the first record’s success. Someone could have quit the band. Someone could have died. They could have broken up any number of times. Life isn’t typically interested in plans.
On the way home on the second night, somewhere just past Framingham, the words “SERVICE ENGINE SOON” lit up in bright orange on my dashboard, carrying a certain amount of dread. I dropped it off in the morning to get it checked out, though. I have a date in Hartford to make next week, and so do they.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org