Pearl Jam sprints through a marathon at Madison Square Garden
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
By nature, I resist bowing down to New York City, but I recognize the superhuman when I see it. It’s a city with an absurd number of people and a subway system that can be confounding on first glance, and it demands something beyond the greatest effort to gain recognition. And it’s in this setting that Pearl Jam waltzed into the city on Sunday night, and where I paid my way in to see it happen.
I have my rituals. This was set up to be my 20th show, so I had a notebook and a pen on hand to track the setlist. We found a Rangers bar nearby that had Pearl Jam coming out of the jukebox, and bid our time before the clock hit to go in, check out the schlock and get ready for whatever might have been in store.
Pearl Jam wasn’t as interested in following the script. On a tour where they’ve tossed long-held traditions and turned the marathon into a nightly happening, they walked into Madison Square Garden, one of the few remaining temples of rock and roll on a grand scale, lit up the room and threw every expectation back out onto the concourse.
An architectural quirk of the Garden is its suspension cable roof which basically holds the entire building up over Penn Station. One of the side effects of that unique design is that when the 20,000-odd inhabitants inside really get moving — say, for example, during a monster take-off of “Go” — the building itself will begin to sway just a little to compensate for the pressure. That minor movement feels jarring as the concrete underfoot begins to vibrate and pulse, and the natural reaction, of course, is to keep jumping in unison.
For an opening tune, it was a declaration that the band, on this first night in New York City, would be doing their damnedest to set the land speed record, burning through 35 songs in three hours with hardly a break. In a new twist, they walked out on stage with the houselights still on and jumped into the muted, extended intro to “Go,” before jumping full throttle into the Vs. tune proper. That was the first in an opening quintet including “Mind Your Manners,” “Corduroy,” “Hail, Hail” and “Given to Fly” that set an up-tempo pace that would maintain throughout the main set.
“We’d like to thank Billy Joel for taking the night off,” Eddie Vedder told the crowd in one of few moments for air during that first 90 minutes. Through their set — they walked off stage just before 11:30 p.m. — they ran through a combination of radio hits and deep tracks with a seemingly endless reserve of energy. In a nod to New York’s history, they clearly reworked “Rats” as a tribute to the late Johnny Ramone, with “John” taking the place of “Ben” in the song’s coda. This was their first appearance in the famous arena in six years, and they were doing whatever they could to make it count.
Of my 20 nights in Pearl Jam’s presence, I cannot remember a show that felt so much like a test of whether or not the group could wear the crowd down to a blistered, sweaty pulp. Save for “Low Light” and a surprise mid-set version of “Release” there was hardly a moment to breathe. And the evidence of the physical exertion was real — the phone pedometer logged more than 3,000 steps in the three hours Pearl Jam was on stage, and on the walk back to the R train, those wobbly legs and blistered soles were definitely present.
But essentially, we were just standing there. Everyone in the band was running their own marathon during the show. Vedder spun around to acknowledge the crowd behind the stage and leapt off of drum risers, Mike McCready raced around the stage and, at one point, up the entire 100-level into section 115 in the middle of his “Alive” solo near the end of the night. Even Stone Gossard seemed to be trading in his usual marching in place for small circles in front of his amps and up to drummer Matt Cameron. Cameron, of course, must stored in a road case and recharged overnight, ready to serve as the ceaseless engine of this band for the next gig.
But through all these breakneck songs, the first half of the first encore was where the depth of the band was revealed, first in a solo take of “The End” by Vedder, and later in the trio of “Off He Goes,” “Footsteps” and the combination of Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns,” likely another tribute to the arenas that Andy Wood would’ve loved to make his own. After putting the audience through the ringer for much of the night, the weight of those slower songs was almost overwhelming. At the very least, it was more evidence that this is a band that can do just about whatever’s necessary whenever necessary.
They’ll even throw in the occasional ridiculous cover. By request for a birthday, they went through two thirds of the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ it to the Streets” as faithfully as possible, which made the entire exercise all the more hilarious. That, of course, gave way to another blistering run through “Whipping,” then turning the arena into a giant sing-along during “Better Man” before “Porch” ramped the energy back through the suspension roof.
The strongest moment came towards the end of the night. Through a searing version of “Black” that Gossard began immediately at the conclusion of “Lightning Bolt,” Vedder’s vocals eventually gave way to a McCready solo that could go down as an all-timer. Alternating between shredding at the front of the stage and leaping towards his amp stack to work the feedback and delay through a 1959 Fender Stratocaster, McCready was every bit the tortured guitar genius, gathering something deep and dark inside and funneling it out through the strings for one of those indelible moments. It was the soaring, atmospheric piece that all guitar solos should aspire to be. Burned into brains and captured on phones and bootlegs, it’s the kind of moment that could turn a bad show around. Here, it merely stands as the capstone on an incredible night.
In addition to a ticket stub and a sweatshirt from the merchandise stand, I had an unlined moleskine in my jacket pocket with a setlist and notes from the show, frantically scribbled in between songs and bouts of screaming that has left me with a scratchy, hoarse throat. I wasn’t singing every word, but enough shouts and hollering along to songs did the damage.
I also lost the cap to my pen some time during the first encore, so for about 10 or 12 songs, I just kept the loose flair and my notebook in my left hand, scribbling when appropriate and clapping with it the rest of the time. At the end of the night, I dropped the drying pen into my empty beer cup — one last sacrifice and a small price to pay for as memorable and exhausting an evening as I can remember. And a thank you to the rock gods of New York for building up a setting like this in the first place.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org