By John Curley
Sunday, May 1st, May Day, was also International Workers’ Day. And on that day, Pearl Jam put in a good day’s work by performing an epic and blistering three-hour, sold-out concert at The World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden in New York City. From the minute that the show started with a ferocious take on “Go,” the veteran Seattle-based band never took their feet off the gas and delivered a pulverizing show that left those in attendance delirious. It’s quite astonishing that most of the members of the band have already celebrated their 50th birthdays because there is really no question that Pearl Jam are a better and tighter band now than they were during their 1990s heyday.
Pearl Jam’s lineup is the same as it has been since 1998: Eddie Vedder on lead vocals and guitar, Mike McCready on guitar, Stone Gossard on guitar, Jeff Ament on bass, and Matt Cameron on drums. They are augmented by Boom Gaspar on keyboards. Pearl Jam have become a well-oiled machine over their quarter century as a live act, and they put on a show filled with such riveting intensity that it made the 18,000-seat venue (home to the NHL Rangers, NBA Knicks, and St. John’s college basketball) feel like an intimate club. The stage was open, so the seats behind the stage were occupied. The band did set up toward the back at one point in the show to play to those fans. And guitarist McCready ran to the back of the stage often enough to keep those fans cheering and riveted to the show.
The band walked onstage to the strains of R.E.M’s “It Happened Today” while the house lights were still up. And the lights remained on while the intro to the first song, “Go,” was played. When the heavy bit of the song kicked in, the house lights were cut, the stage lights took full effect, and Pearl Jam were off to the races. McCready and Cameron were both playing with unbridled ferocity during the performance of “Go” that it had the crowd roaring. It gave one the feeling that we were going to be in for a really great night of music. And that feeling was, of course, correct.
McCready’s guitar virtuosity continued on the second song “Mind Your Manners.” The performance of “Corduroy” put the crowd into a frenzy, as they were both cheering and singing along throughout. Vedder played guitar on the song and capped its performance with a big, Pete Townshend-like leap. “Hail Hail” also received a great reaction from the crowd and the band kicked it into overdrive for their performance of “Given To Fly.”
Prior to doing “Low Light,” Vedder jokingly thanked Billy Joel for taking a night off from his Garden residency so that Pearl Jam could play. “Low Light” featured Gossard playing excellent jangly guitar. The crowd sang along to “Release,” which ended rather abruptly for some reason.
While the show was packed with highlights, a really incredible part of the show was the performance of “Evenflow.” McCready went into the pit in front of the stage and, facing the crowd behind the barrier, he held up his guitar and played it behind his back. McCready then returned to the stage for an extended and absolutely explosive guitar break that made good use of feedback and distortion. Vedder threw his microphone to a guy behind the barricade and had the guy sing a bit of the song. And Matt Cameron had a drum break before the song kicked back in full throttle. It was outstanding, a real band effort.
Before the performance of “Rats,” Vedder told the crowd that Pearl Jam played their first New York City show in 1991 at the now-defunct Marquee Club and added that he had no memory of that gig. Vedder then dedicated “Rats” to Enrico Salvatore Rizzo (or Ratso Rizzo, the character that Dustin Hoffman played in the film Midnight Cowboy).
The crowd erupted when Ament played the opening bit to “Jeremy.” And they sang along to the song with a full-throated roar as McCready played while running in circles around the stage. It was quite a sight. The performance of “Do The Evolution” had the crowd singing along as well, and it featured fantastic guitar work from both McCready and Gossard. This was followed by a rip-roaring “Why Go Home” that had the crowd going wild as McCready played the song’s piledriver guitar lead. The main set was closed out with an astonishing version of “Rearviewmirror” that included Vedder on guitar.
The audience barely had time to catch their breath as Vedder returned to the stage after a very brief interval to start the first of two encores. Vedder played a solo acoustic version of “The End” while seated, which received a good reaction from the crowd. Ament, Cameron, and Gaspar then returned to the stage to join Vedder for a take on “Future Days.” Vedder dedicated the song to the guy who had sung a bit of “Evenflow” earlier in the show. His name is Kenneth, he suffers from an autoimmune disease, and is wheelchair bound. Vedder then mentioned that his wife has done a lot of work for an organization that is combating another autoimmune disease. The performance of “Future Days” that they then delivered was quite nice, very emotional.
The band returned to full strength as McCready and Gossard walked onstage to join the others in a wonderfully laid-back version of “Off He Goes.” McCready and Ament were seated for most of its performance. McCready then stood for the last bit of the song and delivered some great lead guitar. The crowd then sang along on “Footsteps,” which featured Vedder playing some harmonica.
The band paid homage to Mother Love Bone, the Seattle band in which Gossard and Ament were members before Pearl Jam was founded, by performing an emotional and quite terrific “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns.” The audience sang along throughout.
A really great moment in the show (and one of the most talked about afterward) was the cover version of The Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It To The Streets.” Vedder told the crowd that a good friend of his had requested it and he then joked that he wasn’t as good a singer as Michael McDonald.
The first encore closed with the triple threat of “Whipping,” “Betterman,” and “Porch.” The performance of “Whipping” was scorching. McCready stalked around the stage, egging the crowd on and driving them into a frenzy. The extended version of “Betterman” included Vedder on guitar and featured a bit of The English Beat’s “Save It For Later.” Vedder ended the song doing Townshend-like windmills on his guitar. “Porch” was also extended and had Vedder leaving the stage to stand on the barrier in front of the crowd so that he could shake hands with and high five audience members. It was outstanding, and the crowd cheered loudly as the band exited the stage.
The band came back onstage after about a minute for the second encore and, facing the crowd behind the stage, performed “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town.” McCready was all over the stage during his spectacular solo during “Alive.” Cameron’s son, Ray, joined the band for a fiery cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” and Ray Cameron played as McCready signed tambourines and handed out guitar picks.
Despite the three-hour length of the show, Pearl Jam’s performance was one that the audience did not want to end. This had been the best of the band’s concerts that I have seen.
Pearl Jam played a second sold-out show at Madison Square Garden on Monday, May 2nd. This leg of their North American tour ends with two shows at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on May 10th and 11th. In August, they will perform at two legendary baseball stadiums with two sold-out shows each at Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Full tour dates can be found at http://www.pearljam.com/tour.
Pearl Jam’s set list was as follows:
Mind Your Manners
Given To Fly
I Got ID
Dangerous Business (cover of song by Paul Williams, from the film Ishtar)
Do The Evolution
Off He Goes
Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns (cover of song by Mother Love Bone)
Takin’ It To The Streets (cover of song by The Doobie Brothers)
Betterman (with bits of Save It For Later, cover of song by The English Beat)
Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town
Rockin’ In The Free World (cover of song by Neil Young)