I’ve got a backlog of blogging to do, which isn’t unusual given my genetic predisposed towards procrasting (thanks, dad!). The fact that I haven’t written about Pearl Jam at the Vic Theatre is more surprising: the concert was, after all, a defining event in my life as a music fan. Then again, maybe that’s why I haven’t written about it, since I tend to balk in these situations (see: Pearl Jam in Thunder Bay). In fact, maybe what’s actually surprising is that it’s only taken me a month. Exactly a month, in fact.
Most people won’t ever see a big band in a small venue, simply because a, these sorts of things rarely happen, and b, even when they do, the chances of getting tickets are minuscule. Take the Vic, for instance: most tickets were gone the second they became available (even though some people, including a couple we met in line, reported getting through as long as forty-three minutes later). The concert wasn’t officially sold out for four-and-a-half hours, but to all intents and purposes you either got through right away or started selling your body (which some people did do…). I got as far as the login screen, then got booted; seconds later Sherkin called me and announced, to my utter astonishment, that he’d gotten tickets. We were both elated; our excitement was tempered slightly by the knowledge that Pearl Jam Heather had gotten shut out, but at least two of us had made it in. Given the odds, we couldn’t have hoped for much more than that.
Thursday, Pearl Jam Heather and I drove from Toronto to Chicago–a journey which supposedly takes nine hours, but which actually took us much longer than that due to traffic. By the time we arrived at our hotel we basically had time to meet up with Sherkin (who’d flown in earlier that day and had already checked in), throw our bags on the floor, and leave immediately for the subway…which is unfathomably slow (honestly, you can’t begin to imagine how slow these trains are), and so we quickly bailed and took a cab the rest of the way. The scene outside the theatre could best be described as “chaotic”. Remember, very few people managed to get tickets; at the same time, literally thousands of Pearl Jam fans had descended upon Chicago for Lollapalooza, and almost everyone who didn’t have a ticket made a beeline for the Vic on the off-chance someone had an extra to sell. No one did, and no one who didn’t have a ticket got in–not even the guy who’d (apparently) flown in from South Africa earlier that day. (Sherkin and I were both offered $600, cash, on the spot for our wristbands; I don’t think either of us’ll ever have an easier time saying “no” to $600.) Pearl Jam Heather evaluated her chances, quickly decided that they were non-existent, and went to find a bar. Sherkin and I moved to the back of the line, where we collected our wristbands, traded war stories with the people around us (including the girl who was seeing Pearl Jam for the eighty-first time) and waited for doors. While we were waiting, someone asked a staff member if there was an opening act. “A solo artist,” she replied. A solo artist, eh? We decided it was Ben Harper; after all, he was in town headlining the first night of Lollapalooza. As it turns out, we were wrong.
From the outside, the Vic Theatre looks small. Inside, it’s tiny. There wasn’t a bad vantage point at all…and that said, we weren’t about to waste our time near the back. So we went as far forward as we could, and eventually scored a place about twenty feet away from Stone Gossard (well, where Stone Gossard would be, eventually). The excitement was, for lack of a better word, suffocating: tickets were only available to Ten Clubbers, and for most of us this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see our favourite band in a tiny venue. (The upstairs, meanwhile, was restricted to VIPs: each band member has given eighty ducats, although the balcony was reportedly only half-full by the time Pearl Jam took the stage.) And when the lights went out and the “solo artist” revealed himself, the excitement level crescendoed:
The “solo artist” was, in fact, Mr. Eddie Vedder. (“I came cheap,” he announced after the second song.)
So it began. In fact, here’s a complete setlist. Italics indicates songs I’d never heard live before.
- Trouble [Cat Stevens]
- Dead Man
- I Used To Work In Chicago [trad.]
- All The Way
- Picture in a Frame [Tom Waits]
- All or None
- In Hiding
- I’m Open
- Off He Goes
- Hard to Imagine!
- Gods’ Dice
- World Wide Suicide
- Why Go
- No More (Ed solo)
- Inside Job
- Low Light
- Love Reign O’er Me [Who]
- BLACK DIAMOND [KISS] with Matt Cameron on lead vocals!!!!!!!!!!
- Sonic Reducer
- Indifference (with Ben Harper!)
That’s fourteen songs I’d never heard live before. I’d heard “Wishlist” nine previous times; otherwise, virtually everything else was rare to me. Now…don’t get me wrong: I love hearing Pearl Jam play its more obscure songs; it’s one of the reasons I keep seeing on them. But that doesn’t mean I want Ten banished from the records of human existence–something certain “fans” would be glad to see happen. It’s an attitude I don’t understand: Pearl Jam isn’t a band for snob obscurantists, since anyone who can headline Lollapalooza is, by definition, incredibly popular. If you’re so wrapped up in trying to appear to be the biggest fan in the world (“my favourite song was ‘Sweet Lew’ even before Lost Dogs!”) then you’re actually missing the point by a considerable margin.
On the other hand, club shows are problematic from a setlist point-of-view: some songs are just too “big” for a small venue, a point which I’ve made every time I’ve seen the Tragically Hip play a club show (in 2004, for instance, when La Gusenza and I saw the band at the Mod Club, they played “New Orleans is Sinking”; my immediate reaction was, “This isn’t working.”) I think Pearl Jam knows this, which I think helps explain why the Vic played out the way it did; throw in a floor full of people who’ve seen every trick in your repertoire and you’ve got the ingredients for an unusual night. But after hearing a string of rarities, Sherkin and I both began feeling nonplussed. “Rats”? Whatever. “Love Reign O’er Me”? Meh. Matt Cameron singing a KISS song from behind the drumkit? You get the idea. It’s not that it wasn’t a great show: it’s that the element of surprise was almost immediately taken away, which effectively robbed it of one of the vital ingredients of any classic Pearl Jam concert. Not even Ben Harper’s “surprise” guest appearance felt like a surprise.
I guess what I’m saying is this: as much I enjoyed the experience of seeing Pearl Jam at the Vic I wouldn’t rank it alongside Buffalo 2003 or Toronto 2006 as one of the great all-time shows I’ve seen the band perform. It was certainly a unique opportunity, and if it sounds like I’m being ambivalent about it trust me: I’m not. But “unique” and “life-altering” are two different things, and in the aftermath of the show, when I heard people comparing it to the birth of their first child…well, it left me feeling kinda cold. (And having said all that…hey, I was twenty feet away from Eddie Vedder at a show where I heard fourteen songs I’d never heard live and where Matt Cameron sang a KISS song from behind the drumkit!) I’m really not complaining: I’m simply saying, as delicately as possible, that I’ve seen better from the band, and I think if most people who were in attendance would be completely honest then they probably have as well.
Like their performance at Lollapalooza, for example.