Pearl Jam Celebrated its 24th Birthday With a Rousing Denver Show and All the Wine
Pearl Jam's 24th anniversary - which the band celebrated last night with a raucous, rarity-filled, tour-ending barnburner of a concert at the Pepsi Center - closed with lead guitarist Mike McCready playing "the Star Spangled Banner" Hendrix-style while the rest of the Seattle quartet sprayed champagne on the Denver crowd.
It began with Justin Morneau (your 2014 National League batting champ) finding his seat as frontman Eddie Vedder said "Welcome to the last night of our tour" as Pearl Jam settled into the euphorically mellow "Release," which is where the group's 10-million-selling 1991 debut Ten concluded.
A gigantic bird made of scrap metal and/or, as one nearby fan guessed, driftwood, hung above Pearl Jam. It even started flapping its "wings" slowly during "Given to Fly," coincidentally also the point when the crowd started not just singing along to every song but enthusiastically moving as well. The amazing "garbage bird," as my show-mate called it, juxtaposed Vedder's windmill guitar playing to give nods to Pink Floyd and the Who, two bands whose songs Pearl Jam covered last night.
Vedder (who truly gets a workout jumping around during Pearl Jam shows) did a great job celebrating Pearl Jam's 24th birthday by celebrating devoted fans ("Thanks for being the wave; we rode the wave"), the rock icons he loved growing up (Tom Petty, Ian Mackaye, etc.) and his band mates.
Basically, it was a love-fest set to music that's no longer stylistically fresh. But, as the sublime crests of charging rockers like "Porch" and "State of Love and Trust" prove, it remarkably maintains an energy that's not only vital but uplifting and authentic.
"We didn't realize until a few days ago," the outgoing Vedder told the arena audience at one point, "but our first show was 24 years ago today. October 22  we played our first show; October 23, we went into the studio and recorded eight songs; October 24, I went back to work in the gas station in San Diego; and October 25 I put in my 30-day notice. Sometimes there's no better feeling than saying you're never going back again."
With that, Pearl Jam launched into "Life Wasted" (with its "I'm never going back again" chorus) from its eponymous 2006 album. "Life Wasted" was part of a nine-song second encore that found Vedder, passing the microphone around along with a bottle of wine, deep in the crowd during the Who's "Baba O'Riley."
Speaking of wine, Vedder drank at least two bottles of it onstage last night, at least once falling drunkenly mid-song. He giddily popped the aforementioned champagne well before the show's true closer, the "Little Wing"-esque Pearl Jam classic "Yellow Ledbetter" had ended. His fixation with wine did produce a few highlights at the Pepsi Center, including the soon-to-be-50-year-old singer's vow to send a bottle up to "that guy in the white t-shirt, in the very last row." Vedder asked the far-away man to pour wine all over his shirt so we'd all know the bottle made its way to him; apparently it did not.
Musically, Pearl Jam is as strong as ever, though it has never, in my opinion, found a drummer as dynamic (and fitting) as the creative Dave Abbruzzese, who was kicked out of the band in 1994, reportedly because Vedder found his drumming and his drumkit "too metal." Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron -- who deservedly received profuse tributes from Vedder and the crowd last night -- has brought hard, precise beats to Pearl Jam since 1998 but is at times too predictable.
Regardless, lead guitarist Mike McCready (who, like Vedder, jumps around a lot) was the MVP last night, and really the MVP of Pearl Jam (which most people don't notice unless they see a concert film or attend a Pearl Jam show). McCready is a vastly underrated soloist who suffers from Crohn's disease and has come through health scares and substance-abuse problems to really define the term "late-career peak," running laps around the big Pepsi Center stage as he strummed during "Rearview Mirror"; wowing the Denver crowd with a version of the Eddie Van Halen classic "Eruption" before Pearl Jam dusted off "Of the Earth"; and generally providing the kind of singular lead-guitar voice that can make a rock band a classic rock band.
Rarities and covers (notably a solo version of John Lennon's "Imagine" by Vedder during a short acoustic set) abound, but no matter the song selection, Pearl Jam's clear purpose is to keep its inspirational energy level sky-high...and swing giant light bulbs over the crowd until one shatters and the stage crew freaks out. The Seattle favorites succeeded at both last night.
Personal Bias: My older brother, a longtime Pearl Jam fanatic who incessantly played a cassette version of Ten in his beat-up Honda Civic when the album came out and he'd just learned to drive, texted me throughout the show, my first Pearl Jam concert, letting me know how exciting it was setlist-wise. I'm pretty sure the cassette fell through the holes in the Civic's floor and was lost at one point.
Random Detail: Vedder, who also cracked numerous legal-pot jokes, correctly, and hilariously, pointed out that the Canadian flag hung in the Pepsi Center is slightly larger than the American flag next to it.
By The Way: According to Performance Environment Design Group, Pearl Jam's "garbage bird" set piece is "made out of mostly steel tubing with mixed media accents like wood and rope [and] inspired by a bird sketch from the band. The trick was to make the giant piece look heavy and raw while keeping it light and transportable."
Pearl Jam 10/22/14 - Pepsi Center Denver, Colorado
Release Low Light Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town Last Exit Why Go Lightning Bolt Mind Your Manners Setting Forth Leatherman My Father's Son Even Flow Ghost Present Tense Do the Evolution Eruption Of the Earth Given to Fly Sirens Don't Gimme No Lip Lukin Porch
Encore: Future Days Sleight of Hand Imagine Mother Last Kiss Breath Leash Rearviewmirror
Encore II: Once Black State of Love and Trust Better Man Wasted Reprise Life Wasted Alive Baba O'Riley Yellow Ledbetter
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