Like an Opening Band for the Sun

Pearl Jam’s announcing…well, something tomorrow morning. I’ve actually been taking a break from the band, at least as far as seeing them live’s concerned: following the Seattle show in 2013, which sated a long-standing urge to see Pearl Jam in its hometown, I decided I needed some space from the band in general and the road in particular and spent last year consciously not trying to see them. It proved surprisingly easy: the closest they got to me last year was Detroit, and while normally I’d have done the eight-hour roundtrip drive from Toronto without hesitation (c’mon, it was Pearl Jam at Joe Louis Arena) I’m glad I was able to exercise restraint. Yes, I realize restraint’s a relative concept when I’d seen the band six times in a five-month span the previous year.

Anyway. I just gave the band’s self-titled record a rare spin, and when “Come Back” began it brought me back to Wrigley Field and…well, read on. Here are the ten best live moments from my thirty-eight Pearl Jam concerts.

  1. My first “Alive.” It’s still the single best version of any song I’ve ever heard, narrowly eclipsing any version of “Born to Run.” When Eddie sang (and the crowd shouted) the “if so, if so, who answers…who answers???” part I got so light-headed I literally thought I was going to pass out. I’ve spent the last thirty-seven shows (and the last seventeen years, for that matter) chasing that exact feeling.
  2. The first notes of “Present Tense” at the Fort William Gardens. Pearl Jam in Thunder Bay will forever remain the most special concert I ever see, and while I badly wanted “Long Road” as the opener (I got it two nights later in Kitchener) “Present Tense” was a pretty good consolation prize.
  3. “Release” at PJ20. The PJ20 festival, which took place in East Troy, Michigan Wisconsin twenty years after Ten came out, might’ve been the single most anticipated happening in Pearl Jam fan history…and three days beforehand I wasn’t planning on going. I’m glad I changed my mind: the entire weekend was memorable and featured, among many other things, Chris Cornell singing a Mother Love Bone cover and two Temple of the Dog reunions. But the weekend might’ve actually culminated with Pearl Jam’s very first song, the version of “Release” by which all others will be measured. “Release” can be spine-tingling with even an ordinary audience. Now imagine an audience of 40,000 die-hard Pearl Jam fans who’d been waiting four months for these two shows–then throw in the fact that some of them had travelled from the other side of the planet to be there and that most of us had spent the run-in dreaming up all sorts of wild scenarios (some of which came true). Given all that, “Release” was the only possible opener, and the response was nothing short of ecstatic. Listen to that sing-a-long!
  4. My first “Hard to Imagine.” The song was my white whale, although it only took fifteen shows for me to hear it (“Tremor Christ,” by comparison, took thirty-five). I’ve since heard it twice more, in Calgary two years ago and at the legendary Vic Theatre show.
  5. “It’s OK” at Jones Beach. Pearl Jam covered this Dead Moon songs on the first leg of its 2000 North American tour, less than two months following the Roskilde tragedy. This version, which was later preserved on the Touring Band 2000 DVD, remains definitive; at the end I got the same light-headed feeling I got during my first “Alive.”
  6. My first “Baba O’Riley.”really wanted to hear the band’s cover of “Baba O’Riley” when I embarked on my personal 2000 tour (four shows, which seemed incredibly decadent back then). They played it at the Toronto show; my reaction might best be described as “utterly mental” (Pearl Jam Heather will confirm this).
  7. The third encore in Buffalo in 2003. Still the best Pearl Jam show I’ve seen, narrowly edging the second Toronto show in 2006 (see #10). The improbable third encore–which followed a note-perfect second encore that culminated with a cover of “People Have the Power” by Patti Smith–opened with a version of “Baba O’Riley” that had people jumping over the boards and rushing the stage, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any better Mike was picking up his beat-up Stratocaster and playing the opening to “Yellow Ledbetter.” Afterwards me, Sherkin, and our friends sat in the car, totally unable to move; then we drove across the Peace Bridge with the Top Gun anthem blasting from the car’s tape player (!). I spent the night on a floor underneath a pool table in my friend Tyler’s basement. The next day…
  8. “Porch” at State College. …we saw what was for a while “the longest Pearl Jam concert that’s ever been played” (Eddie’s exact words at the top of the second encore). “Porch” alone clocked in at ten minutes, featured an impassioned Eddie speech replete with mirror reflecting over the audience a la Bono, and led to a “Rockin’ in the Free World” that finally caused me to lose my voice.
  9. “Come Back” at Wrigley. Read this. Then watch this (warning: it’s really tough). And then watch this, which was stunning to witness; during the solo an honest-to-goodness lightning storm broke out, which led you to conclude that God really does exist.
  10. “Beast of Burden” at the second Toronto show in 2006. The show, which was an underrated masterpiece, featured one high point after another, not the least of which was Eddie seeing Sherkin’s Canada flag, pointing to a Brazilian flag behind the stage, and telling him and the other flag-bearer that they should make babies (100% true story). The show ended, as so many do, with “Yellow Ledbetter,” and then as Mike was playing the outro he spontaneously broke into “Beast of Burden” by his favourite band, the Rolling Stones. Mike does that fairly often during “Yellow Ledbetter.” What made this version unique was Eddie joining in on vocals and the crowd, which had been incredible the entire night, singing along with him. This is the show I said made me want to run all night and into the following day.

Will I add to these memories in 2015? We’ll find out tomorrow!

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