I’ll be the first to admit that my favourite Pearl Jam record is their first and most popular one – Ten. Since Ten, they have released and toured many records, and I confess I haven’t kept much track of their other records. So tonight’s concert consists primarily of songs I have never heard before. But it doesn’t matter.
Pearl Jam seems eager to be there as if it was their first-ever gig. This is hammered home by the fact that singer Eddie Vedder is not well this evening but still insists on continuing the concert. He has a cold, which comes across in his already raw voice, which tonight sounds particularly fragile in places. He joins his roadie at the back of the stage several times throughout the evening to get a top-up of cough syrup and god knows what else, to keep his voice going until the end. Vedder also asks the crowd to help him out by taking over vocal duties here and there – but I’m sure they would have sung along either way.
Vedder’s ill health gives the evening a certain amount of suspense; there are several times when he leaves the stage for a minute or two, where I think, this is it, the concert is over. But he keeps coming back, and the band plays on and on.
For me, the concert’s highlights are mainly the six songs played from Ten. Whether it’s nostalgia or because I genuinely think they’re the best songs, who knows. But when Even Flow, Deep, Porch, Why Go, Black and Alive are played scattered throughout the set, my excitement barometer measures a bit higher than for any other song. I wished they’d played Jeremy and Release. But then again, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a concert where I didn’t wish for a couple of songs that weren’t played. That’s the nature of going to concerts, and that’s OK.
Pearl Jam has a reputation of being a band of the people – and it shows. They are a tight unit that maintains a high level of playing. They are blessed with a frontman who knows how to connect with a crowd. Vedder seems to put as much effort into watching the crowd as the crowd does watching him. He sees what’s going on and comments and interacts between most songs.
Whether it’s listening to some fans telling him how they got to the concert by walking a long distance (!), or sharing his wine (or was it the cough syrup?) with someone in the first row, he has perfected the art of engaging with an audience. Likewise, when he throws out at least a dozen of tambourines to the lucky receivers or gets as close to the audience as he can without actually crowd surfing (I hope he didn’t pass on any of those germs). Or when he sees a member of the audience wearing a ‘Matt Fucking Cameron’ t-shirt and makes sure to introduce the drummer as such.
After already setting the bar high, Pearl Jam finishes off strong with Black, Alive and their sublime cover of Neil Young’s Rockin’ In the Free World. This song may not be their own, but one the band has always worn as if it was their favourite flannel shirt – an outdated apparel reference, I know. Grunge is over, and we are no longer in the 1990s.
Back in the present of the 2010s, it feels great to get reacquainted with a part of my youth, and beyond that, tonight’s gig was great. Pearl Jam is an unusually excellent rock band, no doubt about it.
The next day I see that Pearl Jam had to cancel their second gig at the O2 that evening because Eddie Vedder has lost his voice. It’s hardly surprising, and though I feel sorry for the people who’ll miss out on the second gig, I am grateful that Vedder went all in the night before and gave us an incredible live concert experience instead of calling it in. I truly hope that most people who missed out on the cancelled gig get to go to the rescheduled gig.
Pearl Jam setlist
1. Of the Girl
2. Low Light
3. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
5. Brain of J.
6. Even Flow
9. Severed Hand
10. Love Boat Captain
11. Can’t Deny Me
12. Do the Evolution
15. You Are
16. Parting Ways
18. Off He Goes
19. Sleeping By Myself (Eddie Vedder song)
21. Mind Your Manners
22. Why Go
23. Better Man
24. Last Kiss (Wayne Cochran cover)
27. Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young cover)