You may have heard that we had some rain at the sold out Pearl Jam show at Wrigley Field last Friday night. Seven songs and then two-and-a-half hours of waiting for rain to come, pass and then come again. Instruments and equipment were wrapped in tarps, fans took shelter in the green stadium seating, and in the sweltering concession area underground. And we waited. While we waited, we watched the aged and smiling Cubs ushers keeping the peace and, to those who would listen, telling old stories of epic rain delays and unforgettable Cubs plays. We told stories ourselves: some about how far they had traveled to be there (Indiana, Tennessee, Florida and beyond) others about how much money they had spent on tickets (anywhere from $70 to $3000, from second-hand dealers). All of us talked about our histories with Pearl Jam, about the first time we heard them—who we were then and who we are now. We talked about the first Pearl Jam concert we ever went to, the fifth, the tenth, the thirtieth… many wearing the banners of those experiences as threadbare concert t-shirts. Everywhere folks experienced the shared anxiety of hope: “There is about a 5% chance that this show is happening,” I heard one guy behind me say, disappointed. But collectively, we cheered on the rain, gasped when lightning struck nearby, and at a quarter to midnight (after two waves of storms had passed) shuffled, tired but resolute back to our seats, anxious to be dazzled.
Before the delay, the band opened with Ten’s closer, “Release.” Over the now-classic guitar arpeggios in the introduction to that song, Eddie Vedder breathed his greeting to the crowd: “Ommm, Ommm” I don’t know that it was intentional, but an “Om” in the Hindu sense is an evocation of light, harmony and peace. When I first made that connection, it just seemed like a nice, almost humble, greeting. But we would need the extra measure of patience the pseudo-blessing evoked that night.
The initial set was, by and large, subdued: “Release” into “Nothingman” into “Present Tense.” But when “Present Tense” turned over into its up-tempo section, the cameras turned on the crowd where the front-row Beatle-screamers were revealed to be mostly middle-aged men. One, clearly a body-builder, appeared to be in hysterics, tears streaming down his happy chiseled face.
Eddie Vedder, who grew up in Evanston, IL, was clearly pleased to be there. In the first of many speeches of the evening he acknowledged his pleasure, saying that he’d waited a lifetime for this one. Wrigley was “definitely not just the crown jewel of Chicago but of the whole world,” he said. Later—much later, in introduction to the first song after the rain delay—he pulled on a Cubs jersey and spoke again about his love for the team and Wrigley Field. He related his first trip to the park with his grandfather after seeing dozens of games on black and white television and the vivid and unforgettable colors and smells of a first Wrigley experience. 82-year-old Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub himself, was then ushered on stage and Eddie, this time himself emotional—went on to say that the seeds of his courage to dream big were planted at this field. He then played his tribute song to Banks and the Cubs, a tune called “All the Way.”
It was time for the rock to begin again, though. And echoing Ernie Banks’ famous “let’s play two” attitude about the game, Eddie promised us that Pearl Jam would play until 2.
All this as midnight was striking.
And then, folks, the show finally started. From midnight until just after two, Pearl Jam played 25 songs, making the total for the evening 32. They were bold and unrelenting, first playing the lesser-known fan-favorite “All Night” (which was appropriate) and then an absolutely blistering rendition of “Do the Evolution.” This was followed up soon after by one of the evening’s highlights: a slightly extended version of “Corduroy,” one of the finest songs of them all. With “Corduroy,” Pearl Jam proved something both practical and transcendent: The immediate message was that this is an important moment and we were an important audience—that we’d suffered a bit together and deserved something special. But there was also nothing to suggest that this performance was being phoned in. It’d be easy to do—I see good bands do it all the time. But, Pearl Jam’s intensity on stage was a testament to their interest in keeping the moment as genuine and interesting as possible.
That was the flavor of the rest of the evening. After “Corduroy,” the band played their fantastic new single “Mind Your Manners,” and followed it up with two other tracks from the upcoming record Lightning Bolt (title-track “Lightning Bolt” and, later, a ballad “Future Days” which featured long-time producer and friend Brendan O’Brian on a lovely keyboard part). And while hearing tunes like “Evenflow” and “Why Go” evoke, for me, a very specific moment in early-nineties history, somehow the song “State of Love and Trust” has not aged a moment from its release twenty years ago. They also played “Rearviewmirror” which sums up so much of what is good about Pearl Jam: vivid imagery, strong melody, incredible musicianship, and a killer bridge hook. That song also shows off the stellar rhythm section of Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron and highlights, especially, what Cameron has brought to the band in terms of virtuosity over the last 15 years.
Two final thoughts: A Chicago storm has the potential of creating some serious chaos at an event as large and costly as a Wrigley Field concert. I’m grateful that we didn’t have to deal with a cancellation and was impressed from the beginning about how Wrigley managed the problem. Eddie Vedder’s sincere speechmaking assuaged the audience and, even though he probably shouldn’t have promised that the show would go on, he did. That meant a lot to attendees. As a result of the delay, however, there were some fairly significant cuts made to the 40-song planned set list (a picture of which circulated on Twitter before the show even began). A critique of what they decided to play versus what they decided to cut is privileged and problematic, I realize, but I’m going to go out on limb and argue that folks would have rather heard “Daughter” instead of the obscure b-side “Leatherman.” And, even if some may consider hearing the song “Bugs” an eclectic treat (it was only the third time it has been played live, ever), I’m guessing that a song like “Better Man,” or “Alive” both of which got cut, would have been more powerful. On the other hand, time was well spent in tribute to other artists. It was only the fourth time that the band played Mother Love Bone classic “Chloe Dancer” which worked as a lovely preface to another MLB tune “Crown of Thorns. ” We also heard Pink Floyd’s “Mother” as well as a McCready-solo guitar tribute to Van Halen with “Eruption.”
Pearl Jam closed the show with Neil Young’s “Keep on Rocking in the Free World” at around 2 a.m.—exceeding the Wrigley neighborhood curfew by three hours. It was a joyful and rousing end. As I walked under the ivy in centerfield and out into the streets, I remembered an earlier moment. Just before the rain delay, the band played “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” I noticed that Vedder changed the lyrics and sang “All these changes taking place, I’m so glad I saw this place. Thank you, John, for taking me.” It was a simple but incredibly personal gesture—a prayer of thanks to his grandfather, perhaps—that captured the magnitude of the place and the moment. I took a personal moment of my own, turned a circle and admired a the historic stadium full of 40,000 friends and fellow travelers:
“But now here you are, and here I am. Hearts and thoughts they fade away.”
3. Present Tense
4. Hold On
5. Low Light
6. Come Back
7. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
8. All the Way
9. All Night
10. Do the Evolution
11. Setting Forth
14. Mind Your Manners
15. Lightning Bolt
16. State of Love and Trust
18. Even Flow
20. Mike McCready guitar solo: Eruption (Van Halen)
22. Why Go
23. Unthought Known
25. Future Days
26. Mother (Pink Floyd)
27. Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns (Mother Love Bone)
29. Wasted Reprise
30. Life Wasted
32. Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young)