review by Sebastian Hernandez
Pearl Jam has been around for nearly a quarter of a century, or to be incredibly precise, existed as a live band for exactly twenty four years. On October 22nd, 1990 Pearl Jam played their first show in Seattle. Exactly twenty four years later that story added a colorful page with a tour-ending, instant classic performance delivered to fans in the Mile High City.
One could reasonably assume someone in the band’s camp to be responsible with the keeping of such dates, but that would appear to be an incorrect assumption. Vedder explained the band learned about the anniversary the day before through, (from what I could gather) a fan-driven movement to commemorate the date in Denver. Known quantity or not, the weight of twenty four years was clearly on the band’s mind.
In our strange commemorative-heavy, hyper-consumerized culture, one of elongated player farewells, repackaged nostalgia (in premium, limited edition versions, natch), and manufactured celebrations of things that weren’t all that good in the first place, there is a simple and romantic beauty with backing into such a tribute. Having been long-removed from the day to day operations of PJ Internet fandom, I for one had no idea about any of this. It certainly explained #PJ24 and the many ‘Happy Birthday’ themed wares dotting the sold out arena.
“Welcome to the last night of the tour” – Eddie Vedder
This one was going to be special. Right from the onset there were hints. The first indication came even before the first notes of show opener, “Release”. The slow burning classic would soon unleash cathartic howls from thousands, but first a chipper Vedder welcomed and immediately starting leading everyone on. Pro tip: if Eddie Vedder makes a point of something – anything – odds are pretty good the guy will try to will it into being. If Eddie Vedder says that tonight might be a good show, one of the band’s best ever even, one best buckle up and prepare for the ride. He’s a masterful front man, able to froth excitement from eager crowds hanging on his every word.
For a band known for epic live shows, simply tempting to hold a candle to ‘best ever’ status is a dangerous expectation. Hardcore fans are well versed on the shortlist of heralded dates that form Pearl Jam’s live canon. To tease such things, said candle better be a hot one, and without doubt, this was a Wednesday night in Denver when things got hot. Fire-breathing dragon spewing relentless inferno hot, who chews lava to keep cool kind of hot, and for three and a half hours Pearl Jam delivered the heat without question.
A spirited “Why Go” seemed like a clinic for how well Eddie Vedder can still do Eddie Vedder. He sounds better than ever. The last album’s title track, “Lightning Bolt” could be described as a “breather”. When you need a breather only five songs in, it was that kind of night. Not that it lasted. The hard driving machine gun guitars of “Mind Your Manners” followed, the latest Ed as punk rocker track.
Playlist craftsmanship was displayed nicely by linking thematic songs together. Exploring the individualist streaks of Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild’s “Setting Forth” was introduced after a soliloquy about “best friends you never met.” Ed welcomed the sister of the late McCandless who was in the room. An old B-side about outdoorsman survivalists, “Leatherman” followed. Later in the show covers “Mother” (Pink Floyd) and “Imagine” (Lennon) were paired in a tragic symmetry of ingrained despair vs pure idealistic hope. Trio of “Breath”, “Leash” and “Rearviewmirror” spoke to freedom, breaking out, encouraging the seekers to seek. These were songs that used to direct my teen angst, and they still deliver as aspirational escape.
I could go on about the songs. “Alive”, “Baba O’Riley” and “Yellow Ledbetter” closed out the night. Mike McCready then really closed out the night all alone on electric guitar playing the “Star Spangled Banner”. But the real story was the energy. For three and half hours everyone was on their feet. The band fed off the crowd and vice versa. Hard to imagine anyone who didn’t have a great time last night, but nobody less than the band themselves. It seemed the totality of the moment coming at tour’s end was well appreciated. This is as healthy a band as you’ll ever see, which shouldn’t really be a surprise given one of longevity’s enemies is dysfunction.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve seen my share of Pearl Jam. Many of those were truly epic performances that inarguably exist in the conversation of ‘best evers’: An insane, storm-soaked 1996 Randall’s Island show during the peak of the moshing era; The 1998 MSG show where “Breath” was taken off the shelf after intense fan lobbying. I feel confidently that Denver 10/22/2014 deserves a place on this list.
Twenty four years together and Pearl Jam remains a compelling group performing at an incredibly high level, but also a group playing with intensity as if they had something to prove. Should we be surprised at this point? Like a playoff team clawing and fighting for a win, leaving it all out on the field and using the energy of fans to propel toward victory. Especially near the end when there’s barely anything left, they’ll fight for everyone in the room. And the crowd knows it and encourages loudly to support. Even the people at the end, at the top of the arena, in the very last row get a taste, quite literally: Eddie sent them wine.
Setlist: Release, Low Light, Elderly Woman, Last Exit, Why Go, Lightning Bolt, Mind Your Manners, Setting Forth, Leatherman, My Father’s Son, Even Flow, Ghost, Present Tense, Do The Evolution, Eruption (Van Halen cover), Of the Earth, Given To Fly, Sirens, Don’t Gimme No Lip, Improv>Lukin, Porch
Encore 1: Future Days, Sleight of Hand, Imagine (Lennon cover), Mother (Pink Floyd cover), Last Kiss, Breath, Leash, Rearviewmirror
Encore 2: Once, Black, State of Love and Trust, Better Man, Wasted Reprise, Life Wasted, Alive, Baba O’Riley, Yellow Ledbetter>Star Spangled Banner