Unless you’re the kind of Pearl Jam fan who obsessively defends their latest output, catalogs their every recording, and would probably burn over 100 of their live shows if your computer could file over 99 in order (a roommate from the post- Riot Act, pre-self-titled era was one such fan), then every Pearl Jam song falls into one of three categories. There are the songs you know, the songs you don’t know, and the songs you didn’t know you knew. The band’s two hour and forty five minute set at the Baltimore Arena on Sunday night had plenty of each.
My Pearl Jam story is a mostly typical one. I fell in love with their first album in 1992, marked the release dates of their next two CDs on my trapper keeper calendar, dropped the “eremy” in my given name due to the omnipresence of their biggest hit, and largely gave up on them after No Code. Thus, Sunday night’s experience was a nostalgic endeavor.
Here’s the thing about nostalgia, though. At an 80s rock concert, it is everywhere. You are reminded of the absurdly un-PC lyrics and lifestyles of the bands from the hair era in everything happening on an often busy stage: the fire, the strippers, the studded leather pants. But Pearl Jam was always a band that leaned heavily on grunge’s punk rock ethos. They were image conscious about being a band that doesn’t rely on image. Therefore, a Pearl Jam concert in 2013 doesn’t have the markings of a nostalgic event. That is to say, there is nothing happening on stage to remind you of the era when Tabitha Soren was a real force in electoral politics and The Real World was an interesting social experiment. It was just six guys on stage, with very few props other than some green lights that looked like mosquito traps and a bit of scrap metal. There was also at least one flannel shirt and a chain wallet but that seemed coincidental.
Early in the evening, Mr. Vedder noted that it was the twenty-three year-old band’s first concert in Baltimore. Such are the hazards of having a crumbling little arena and fewer affluent zip codes than D.C. The fans at the sold out show, however, were not by and large first timers. They cheered ceaselessly, danced as white guys wearing baseball caps do, swayed during the slower songs, warbled “doo doot doot do do do” during “Black” and got a compliment from Edward V. for having high energy on a Sunday night. Hardcore fans were happy to hear the rare cut “Hard to Imagine” early in the set and new songs from Lighting Bolt, such as “Lightning Bolt,” were greeted with warm enthusiasm and sing-alongs. Vedder spoke of the recently deceased Lou Reed several times and worked multiple tributes to his legacy into the set. The sentiment was not lost on the crowd, who upped their shouting when the band sprinkled “Walk on the Wild Side” (not originally a Motley Crue song, it turns out) into the end of “Daughter.”
While it was great to hear the songs you know (“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter,” “Better Man,”) and forgivable if you went to the bathroom during the songs you didn’t know (“Present Tense,” “Yellow Moon”), the most interesting part of the show is recognizing the songs you didn’t know you knew like “Given to Fly” and “Nothingman.” Shoot, it’s easy to forget the name of the closer from set one until Vedder screams “reaaaarvieeewmeeeeeereeeerrr” around the 2:30 mark, but when he does it may as well be 1994, and you’re staying up late to watch Pearl Jam on Saturday Night Live because Hulu doesn’t exist.
For the first couple of hours, there was a consistent trade off of punky uptempo tracks and mumbly ballads. This is the yin and the yang of Pearl Jam, then and now. The first two singles off Lighting Bolt, both featured on Sunday, are the spunky “Mind Your Manners” and the warbler “Sirens.” Things really took off, however, on the back end of the set, which featured four songs from Ten and two choice covers. The band closed set two with “Porch” (you know “Porch” but you might not know you do). When they came back, Vedder muttered something before launching into “Once,” and a solid cover of The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
During “Alive,” Vedder seemed to tire, perhaps not physically but of the chore of being a rock star. Bono he is not. This guy wants to create, wants to perform, wants to be in a band with three guys he’s been with for 23 years and the drummer from Soundgarden, but you can tell that he doesn’t want to be the guy who relies on back catalog hits. He wears this feeling pretty openly. Perhaps sensing his own waning enthusiasm, Vedder brought an animated superfan onstage to pogo around during grunge godfather Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but even then, as Vedder aped the fan’s frenetic dance moves a few times to the crowd’s delight, it was worth asking the eternal Gen X questions: Is he being ironic? Are we all being ironic? Meh, doesn’t matter. You can play “Alive” earnestly or you can play “Alive” detachedly just so long as you play “Alive.”
Setlist (via setlist.fm)
- Hard to Imagine
- Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
- Lightning Bolt
- Mind Your Manners
- Given to Fly
- Daughter (Walk on the Wild Side tag)
- Present Tense
- Spin the Black Circle
- Let the Records Play
- Setting Forth (Eddie Vedder song)
- Unthought Known
- Yellow Moon
- Man of the Hour
- I’m Waiting for the Man (The Velvet Underground cover)
- Better Man (Save it for Later tag)
- Do the Evolution
- Encore 2: