Thursday, September 15, 2022

The TSIS Review: Camden, 9/14/22

Yesterday's Camden show was my first Pearl Jam concert since the Brooklyn Shows in 2013.  It’s been nine years, which is crazy since I had been a three shows a tour guy since 1998. Life just got in the way.  I had small kids and felt bad about traveling.  Work was stressful and money was maybe a little tight. I got shut out of a few shows, and I was at a place in my life where moving heaven and earth to go see Pearl Jam just didn’t seem necessary.  I wanted to go, and the shows have always been among the highlight of my year, but missing them didn’t seem like a big deal anymore. There would always be next time.

COVID put ‘there will always be a next time’ into perspective, as did the realization that in my nine year absence the guys in the band somehow kept aging and are now pushing sixty. I can’t count on next time.  So when my Baltimore show was cancelled and I didn’t get into the Camden pre-sale, I decided to try my luck with general admission.  It felt important to be there again, even without privileged seats. It’s been nine years, but I am fortunate to still be able to see my favorite band.  Pearl Jam has endured.   Not everyone has.

I am so glad I went.  The show was incredible. I forgot how astonishingly good they are at this, and how much I had taken it for granted. There is an encompassing resonance to Eddie’s voice live that no album (and certainly no concert bootleg) has ever been able to capture.  Mike is one of the last great guitar gods, and he plays with an emotional, improvisational fury that rarely appears on the more carefully crafted studio solos.  Jeff was a beast, and his bass playing regularly pushed through the wall of sound.  Matt and Stone are machines, somehow keeping everything grounded and moving forward, the sturdy support that lets the others shine – at one point Eddie described Stone as the guy who creates the waves that Mike gets to surf. That feels right.  Just incredible performances all around, somehow magnified by their incomprehensible humility and gratitude. They play like a band who remembers every performance, and every connection, even though there have been about a thousand shows.  Somehow every show is special to them, because they know how special it is for the people who are there, and they care so much about honoring the commitment the audience has made to them.

It was a pleasure to be reminded of all this after my long absence, and how little the set list bullshit I used to obsess over matters. The truth is that when you’re there, it doesn’t really matter what was played, so long as they are playing.  The live experience can make MFC and Inside Job feel like the most important songs in the world because they play them like they are, and so the audience experiences them the same way.

Having said that – it was a special show. The two people I was with have each seen Pearl Jam 3 times over the past twenty years. Not their first show, but hardly regulars.  They songs they wanted most were Wash and State of Love and Trust, and they got them.  Knowing the history, getting Breath and Leash in the same night was incredible, and they played the hell out of the both. The new songs sounded great. The classics sounded fresh. I was a little bummed I wasn’t going to get Alive, since I figured Breath took that spot. But Pearl Jam kept going, and there it was.

 Alive is my favorite song.  And it is invariably my concert highlight.  But I had an emotional reaction I didn’t really expect (it’s not like I haven’t gotten it 15 other times).    Maybe it was the time away. Maybe it was the storm and stress of the last two years.  But it felt earned, like a victory, in a way I’m not sure it ever had before, even though that’s literally the core message of the song.  Pearl Jam concerts are quasi-spiritual experiences for me – vaguely out of body and otherworldly.  I am an atheist, this is much church, and I was so grateful for the chance to take communion with tens of thousands of other believers – even out there on the lawn, where I felt a powerful connection to the three huge, intoxicated men dancing and singing their heart out to every song, embracing the moment and taking advantage of the space given to them while respecting the boundaries of those around them. Or the stranger who had to high five me twice, he was just so overcome.  I didn’t know these people.  But their joy brought me joy.  And half way through Alive I started to cry just a little bit.

We’ve all come through a lot together, and every time we put something down there is more waiting to be carried. We are none of us through the trauma of the past two years, and more awaits us. But for a few hours I was fortunate enough to watch my favorite band go out there and be the best band in the world.   While they were playing none of that other stuff mattered, and when they were done, it mattered just a little less.

God I fucking love Pearl Jam.

Okay – some thoughts about the show:

The four-song slow start was interesting – it wasn’t an acoustic set, so it didn’t feel differentiated from the main show, but it was a good way to warm up the band (I’m guessing that’s the point?).   All the performances were great, and Hard to Imagine was an excellent transition into the explosive main set.  I generally prefer the studio takes of almost all Pearl Jam songs (the live performances are about the experience more than preferring the sound of them live), but Hard to Imagine really comes into its own live – so much more immediate, the outro more transformative.

The run from Animal through Quick Escape was ferocious.  I’m not sure if I could pick a highlight, but I was impressed with how intense Mind Your Manners was, and Quick Escape sounds incredible – the live version takes all the best elements of the album version and doubles down on them.

Retrograde was interesting.  The main block of the song had a grandeur and importance that the studio version wants to have but couldn’t quite pull off.   And Eddie clearly wants to find a way to translate the transcendent outro into a live setting, but we couldn’t’ quite get there. The band sounded great, but Eddie was really looking for the audience to lift the ‘hear the sound’ part, and it’s probably just too soon.  A tour of Eddie going for broke during that sequence might create an organic audience call and response, but it won’t work right out the gate.  It’s too new to generate that kind of emotional investment in the audience.

  Who Ever Said sounded great – as did Why Go and Porch (and Eruption was fun).  The main set was pretty relentless once it got going. Retrograde was the only real cool down moment (maybe the Modern Girl tag).  And everyone was into everything.  Why Go may have been the highlight of the back end of the set, though MFC had an edge I didn’t expect, and it was nice to hear the Untitled improv. It had been a long time.

The encore was one surprise after another. Inside Job had an unexpected sweep to it, though if I remember it was also more impressive live than on the record back when I heard it on the 06 tour. Getting Breath and Leash (and the stories behind the requests) in one night was incredible. Crazy Mary had a great Boom solo, Alive was the cathartic triumph it always is, and they went hard on Rocking in the Free World. Looks like that was an audible from Yellow Ledbetter, and that was the right call.  This wasn’t an audience that needed a cool down.  The band left everything on the stage, and we stayed with them right until the end.

Amazing show.  I also got to finally meet B, who is a lovely young man.