Last night, Pearl Jam trumped Mother Nature and successfully entertained a sold-out crowd at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Following the near-nine-hour extravaganza, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman and Senior Editor Matt Melis sat down over burritos and with tired minds discussed the night’s proceedings.
Michael Roffman (MR): The idea of Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field was always a given. Eddie Vedder’s a native of Evanston, he’s a longtime supporter of the Cubs franchise (even writing a song for them, we’ll get to that soon), and they’ve played just about everywhere you’d want them to: Cabaret Metro, The Vic, United Center, Soldier Field, and even Lollapalooza. But no concert at The Friendly Confines goes unnoticed; every Chicagoan recalls their nights in the diamond with Springsteen, Dave Matthews Band, Roger Waters, or McCartney. There’s just something special about the ivy, or the way the neighborhood just shuts down and becomes Fan Central Zone. It’s the must-see summer event, and if you don’t have a ticket, there’s this almost innate feeling like you still need to be in the area — even if you’re not a fan. That’s a weird energy, come to think about it.
Matt Melis (MM): For me, it’s less about Wrigley Field and more about Wrigleyville that makes concerts like these unique. They become neighborhood events, not just events in the neighborhood. Wrigley Field itself, as a setting for a show, isn’t that hard to imagine. Deposit a stage in can-of-corn centerfield, add seats in the shallow outfield, and throw in antiquated, old-ballpark charms like obstructed views from the grandstand and troughs instead of urinals. But what struck me most is that the action outside the ballpark mirrors what goes on inside. People who didn’t get tickets for Friday night’s show (a.k.a. most of Chicago) peered in from nearby rooftops, caught hits and deep cuts on Waveland and Sheffield like they were shagging homers during Cubby batting practice, or just curled up in their own apartments and listened from there. Everyone in the neighborhood got this concert–whether they wanted it or not. And I still gotta believe someone’s doily-crocheting grandmother leaned out her apartment window, heard that opening scream from “Do the Evolution”, and gave the devil horns.
MR: All of that explains why this show was destined to be unique — something the band was hip to all along. Think of it this way: Pearl Jam announced the gig in the same elusive way they rolled out news of their fall tour, their single “Mind Your Manners”, and their new album, Lightning Bolt. This was never going to be just some stop, this was a planned PJ milestone in the making, akin to their residency at The Gorge, their multiple appearances at Lollapalooza, or their awe-inspiring extended stay in Mansfield, MA, where they attempted to roll out every song in their catalogue. Vedder, and possibly the band itself, knew that a Wrigley takeover was a sure shot at creating something just as unique and paramount to their career as the aforementioned. Look no further than Vedder’s dazed stupor when he hit the stage and announced early on, “I’ve kinda waited a lifetime for this one. This isn’t the crown jewel of Chicago, but the crown jewel of planet Earth.”
MM: Everything within the band’s control was geared towards making this a one-of-a-kind night. However, what we’ll probably all remember most is what was out of the band’s control: a storm moving through the Chicago area that interrupted the set after only a few songs and delayed the show nearly three hours. We spent that time crammed shoulder-to-shoulder (not to mention other body parts) in 90-degree heat in the concession areas. Surprisingly, everybody was on their best behavior, even in those lousy conditions (much of which can be attributed to the band’s promise to play a full show once the storm cleared). Though frustrating, it was actually kinda enjoyable eyeballing the various tour t-shirts and getting to chat with longtime fans, some of whom had been to 30-plus Pearl Jam shows.
MR: It was. At one point, we were keeping ourselves busy by checking off various tour shirts; I think we saw them all except for Riot Act. These were dedicated fans: No Code supporters, Mookie Blaylock/Seattle Supersonics jersey owners, and one guy even had a faux bar shirt that read ‘Welcome to Lukins.’ The enthusiasm was a nice touch, and in a way, it was almost like the reverse-PCU rule, where those who DIDN’T wear a band shirt were The Uncool.
(I’m having flashbacks to that Twilight Zone episode, “The Eye of the Beholder”. Don’t worry Matt, we’re the pretty ones.)
I credit the sweltering heat for the lack of flannel; in fact, the only flannel I saw all night was the blanket across the street near McDonald’s that read, “Welcome Pearl Jam” or something to that effect. So, not only did the community make this a unique experience, but also acted as a crutch to lean on when the storm took things over. Jokes were tossed about with the ease of a Sunday game of catch, while stories were traded like something minted by Fleer Ultra. Sorry, the baseball metaphors must be intoxicating, then again, we just spent close to 10 hours in a ballpark. I’m still coming back to reality.
MM: The show grew even more unique once the rain had passed and we were allowed back onto the field. Vedder emerged around 11:45 p.m. and donned a Cubs jersey, before warming the crowd back up with “All the Way”, his own tribute to the Cubs and Wrigley Field. “Ernie Banks used to say, ‘Let’s play two,’” Vedder explained. “Well, tonight I think we can say we’ll play ’til two.” A few minutes later, who arrives onstage but Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks. It was the kind of night where you learned to expect the unexpected.
MR: Even before the lightning struck, though, the surprises kept hitting. Sure, “Release” has become a noteworthy opener in years past, but nobody expected the B-side “Hold On” that early, or even No Code cut “Present Tense”. They only shuffled out seven songs before we huddled away for shelter, but man, there was electricity in the air even before the storm cells made their descent upon the Second City. That shouldn’t shock too many fans, considering Pearl Jam’s probably the best band at crafting the ultimate setlist — even over the likes of the E Street Band, Phish, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, et. al. — but nobody could have predicted the colossal juggernaut such as this:
Okay, so they didn’t get to every cut on here, thanks to Mother Nature’s shit timing, but look at the depth and scope of this setlist. Could you have imagined that ending there? “Better Man” into “Black” into “Alive” into “Baba O’Riley” into “Rockin’ in the Free World” into, lemme gasp for air, “Yellow Ledbetter”? Those are like five guaranteed closers wrapped into an All-Star medley. A part of me feels like I might have died in this alternate universe, where this full setlist was carried out.
However, I should add that I’m fully happy with what we got — and I’ll argue in a minute why it’s for the better.
MM: Yeah, they didn’t get to carry out what would have arguably been their most insane closing encore ever, but think about what we did get. Debuts of new cuts “Lightning Bolt” and “Future Days” from their upcoming album. We saw them performed live before anyone else. And the latter included producer Brendan O’Brien on keys; the guy is Pearl Jam’s equivalent of the Fifth Beatle. Then you have the ultra-rare instance of them covering Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns”. And last but not least, Eddie comes strolling onstage with nothing but a bottle of wine and an accordion. At that point, you know he’s playing “Bugs” (for something like the 3rd time ever). You know he didn’t haul that accordion from London, Ontario, just to play polkas.
So, yeah, like they say in war movies: We seen some shit. But what were your highlights? The best of the best from that unusual show?
MR: Too many to list just one. That back to back slam of “Do the Evolution”-”Setting Forth”-”Corduroy” wasn’t just a stroke of luck plotting-wise but bar none the most frantic and intense I’ve seen this band, even over their weekend jaunt up in Alpine Valley two years back for PJ20. I don’t know what’s gotten into Mike McCready, maybe it’s this new album of theirs, but he was the night’s MVP. “Eruption” solo aside, which was kind of unnecessary (especially given the time restraints), McCready just dug his fingers into those frets of his, making him the coolest rock ‘n’ roller on-stage with a wedding band. That nine-minute monstrosity that was “Porch”? All deception. Everyone’s eyes were on Vedder, as he dove into the crowd, but McCready was going apeshit in his corner. So, I guess my vote goes to the guitarist’s newfound sense of youth — I know I won’t be able to listen to “Corduroy” the same ever again. What about you?
MM: Ditto. I’ve been listening to “Corduroy” a lot lately, both the Vitalogy version and several live cuts, and never have I heard it played with anything close to that level of intensity and fervor; it’s an all new animal 20 years later. McCready earned his guitar deity status tonight. And the band seemed happy to give him that moment.
But more than any one song, I think the biggest highlight for me was shining a spotlight on Yield. “Low Light”, “Do the Evolution”, “Faithfull”, and “Wishlist” all made the set, and I fell in love with that album all over again tonight. And we’re talking a couple deeper cuts there, not the more likely “Given to Fly” or “In Hiding”. Would it be rude to turn that album on while we chat? Seriously, though, that’s something when a live performance makes you feel completely different about an album you made your mind up about over a decade ago.
So, the million-dollar question. What does tonight’s show say about Pearl Jam?
MR: Volumes. Now, I said I was going to argue this, and I think it answers your question, so here’s why I’m OK with that above setlist not coming to fruition: This show became something bigger than rare inclusions, debut songs, or blockbuster encores. Instead, it was everyone’s bizarre, unnatural athleticism and devotion to making sure this night continued — that included the band, the fans, and the beleaguered Wrigley employees who worked extra hours with high spirits (one middle-aged guard was even air guitaring during each song). What should have been a disaster on paper turned into a defining moment for what’s now become one of America’s most important bands today.
Try and imagine: Twenty-something years ago, they were rookies playing Cabaret Metro next to Naked Raygun, Urge Overkill, The Jayhawks, and Soul Asylum to little or no fanfare, yet they were still playing the same songs that not only sold out Wrigley Field but kept that sold-out crowd there for three hours amidst rain, lighting, and exhausting conditions. What does that say for Pearl Jam? I don’t like using the word “religious” for anything, but I’ve never seen such devotion for one act, and between the diehards that waited hours and hours to get seats in 106-degree weather today to the Indiana fan who sat next to us and explained this was his 33rd time seeing them (with a smile of a fresh new fan), I’m quick to throw around the R word.
Bottom line: Pearl Jam played until two in the morning, broke the curfew, and kept the crowds in one of the most popular ballparks in the nation. If that’s not a sign of status, or power, or influence, well, then bollocks to everyone.
MM: Tonight’s show just cemented my thinking that Pearl Jam is our generation’s Led Zeppelin–that band you can always count on to play unpredictable marathon shows. More than that, they just encompass everything I need in a band. They can bring grand, sweeping arena bluster or go punkish and trippy. They can be deeply personal or deeply political and rebellious. They have something for whatever ails ya. In their own words, they “got some if you need it.”
But what I really liked was the overwhelming sense that this band takes nothing for granted. They opened with “Release”, a song they always open Chicago shows with. How many bands keep tabs on something like that? Eddie talked about all the clubs and venues in town they’ve played, including their first Chi-town show at the Metro back in ’91. How many internationally famous bands can remember where they played 20 years ago? They dedicated “Come Back” to a young female fan who passed away recently. Once again, how many bands make that type of gesture? And in another touching move, some of tonight’s proceeds were donated to inner city programs focused on education. So, you might say that Pearl Jam left Chicago a little better than they found it.
Or, as Vedder explained, ”We’re just a band, but you make this music something beautiful.”
Photography by Gretchen Bachrodt.