Community and the unexpected, framed through Pearl Jam's Wrigley Field
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
To start their second night at Wrigley Field, Pearl Jam opened with “Oceans,” on of the earliest tracks in the band’s history and one that pops up rarely through the timeline of their shows, and much less frequently now than then. From there, they launched into “Footsteps,” a song that rarely pops up in their main set and another with a long history — it first appeared on the demo tape that Eddie Vedder first sent Stone Gossard before there was even a Pearl Jam to obsess over.
And “obsession” is what this is, clearly. The band was two songs in and, in addition to taking in the sound and watching them perform during their 25th year together, I’m already running through stats in my head. I’ve never heard “Footsteps” this early. I haven’t seen them play “Oceans” since my first show in 2003. On and on it goes, just like always.
Except I was also thinking about a friend who was sitting on the field, attending his 33rd show and finally hearing the band play “Oceans” for the first time. And I looked around and the crowd and felt this incredible sense of community and acceptance as this was all happening.
After a long night on Friday, I got to bed around 1:30 a.m., woke back up two hours later to take a shower, grab my stuff and head for the airport for four days in Chicago. Ostensibly it was to see Pearl Jam play one show on Monday, with a shot at, perhaps maybe possibly if only by some miracle, going to the Saturday night show, too.
It’s about the band, of course. They’re five and sometimes six stupidly talented guys who are now creeping into their fifties who sound as vital as they did in their twenties and thirties, who play marathon shows where anything and everything is up for grabs. But I wasn’t seeing them alone. I have friends in Chicago and this has been the centerpiece of our collective calendar for months. And that’s what pushed this weekend over the top, from simply seeing a pair of fantastic shows to reveling in the collection of weirdos I’ve been accepted by over the years.
This was to be Pearl Jam’s second attempt at putting on a show at Wrigley Field that hopefully didn’t include half the crowd huddling in the concourse and tunnels trying to escape lightning. Their 2013 show was famously interrupted by a storm that kept the band off the stage for nearly three hours, before coming back shortly before midnight and playing until past 2 a.m.
On this second attempt and with two shows at Fenway Park that essentially served as a dress rehearsal to this two-night stand to close their 2016 tour, the band seemed determined to make up for the hardships that were out of their hands three years earlier. Kicking off with “Low Light” that made the most of the setting sun, they were off and another marathon was in the works.
For a show that started a little before 8 p.m. and ended well after 11, that first night went by in a whirlwind. Even with the benefit of writing everything down during and immediately after, the highlights sort of blur together. After a purposely quiet five-song start to the show, “Do the Evolution” and “Last Exit” formed a flying one-two punch to turn the crowd electric. Guitarist Mike McCready went to an unholy place during the guitar solos on Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” writhing against his amp stack and tearing the strings off a now-mangled Fender Telecaster in the process. And most poignantly, Steve Gleason, the former NFL safety who is now battling ALS and raising funds and awareness to fight the disease, came out in the first encore to introduce 2006’s “Inside Job” and hardly left a dry eye in the park.
Gleason’s appearance was the most powerful personification of what music can mean beyond just getting a beer and watching a show. Since being diagnosed with the disease, he’s found solace in the band’s music and has had a friendship with McCready that dates back to his time growing up in Washington. The band has worked to help Gleason’s efforts whenever possible. Giving him the spotlight during one of their bigger shows of the year was unexpected but becoming par for the course. Far from ordinary, but the most extreme example of what the music can mean to different people.
I had my own little cast of characters that I got to hang out with for the extended weekend. The internet helped facilitate this so many years ago, and new characters come into the mix as the show keeps rolling.
Let’s talk about getting into that Saturday show I wasn’t even supposed to see. We got off the plane around 7:30 a.m. Central time, went down to the Loop where we were staying and met up with a couple of friends for brunch before heading up to Wrigley where they’d pick up their tickets at will call, and we’d all head to the bar and hope for the impossible to fall in our laps. Maybe someone with an extra ticket, maybe a radio contest, maybe a genie and three wishes and whatever other good fortune could befall us.
The ticket windows were already crawling with Ten Club members hoping to get their tickets as soon as possible, along with others hoping for some last-minute tickets to be released. Some were hardcore fans, some were those delightful opportunists we call “scalpers” hoping to turn a quick profit before the show on those same, unlucky hardcore fans. But that window looked like a dead-end, so after a quick spin through the Cubs’ souvenir store, it was off to Vines on Clark for a drink and maybe one of those final gasps on the official ticket site.
So we have Suzanne, Rick, Elmo and myself. We get a drink and notice tickets occasionally popping up on sale, never getting past the “select the number of tickets” option. In the meantime, we’re talking about past shows, about what we’re wanting to hear this weekend — Rick has been waiting for “Oceans” for years, I’ve never heard “Hard to Imagine” — and repeat course until it’s time for a second beer. All the while, I’ve been tapping “Refresh” with my thumb for nearly two hours and ready to call it a day as the battery drains away.
Except as we’re wrapping up, Elmo just says, “I’m in,” and hands me his phone. My eyes bug out of my head with two tickets reserved on the screen. My hands are shaking as I take his phone and I start nervously typing.
“I can’t watch this.” Elmo walks away towards the window, Rick follows and I notice them looking out towards the street through the open bay windows. I get through my log-in, email, card, address and phone number, hit “confirm” or whatever that red button said and … then my phone buzzed on the table, with “Thank you for your order…” appearing next to the email icon.
“YES!” And so began the hugging and high-fiving and the side-eye of some of the bar patrons who didn’t know why I was screaming as if David Ortiz had just won his fourth World Series, and who were at least mildly annoyed by the entire exercise.
Whatever. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the opinion of strangers and I’m sure I’ll resume that soon enough. In that moment, we had just scored a bonus date with Pearl Jam at Wrigley.
What keeps us all coming back for five, 10, 50 or 100 shows is that unpredictability the band has prioritized. On Saturday, there were plenty of surprises – a full-band reading of “Let Me Sleep,” dusting “Sad” and “Amongst the Waves” off the shelf, celebrating the clearing skies with the Beatles’ “Rain.”
But Monday went to another level, and the band very clearly pushed themselves on their last show of the year. After the opening pairing of “Oceans” and “Footsteps,” they continued to twist even their own habits and kept the crowd on their toes. Rather than closing the set or breaking it out in the encore, “Better Man” appeared fourth. Vedder teased Jane’s Addition’s “Summertime Rolls” before “Corduroy.” Dennis Rodman came out to recreate the voicemail message in the middle of “Black Red Yellow,” a b-side being performed for the seventh time ever.
Through the pacing, song selection and absolutely furious approach, the main set was hands-down the best I’ve seen in person. It might have been the best I’d ever heard at all. It was 90 minutes of everything that made the band great with hardly a moment to spare. And within the encores, Pearl Jam built on that. Vedder played “Throw Your Arms Around Me” as a tribute to everyone who had travelled internationally to see the show. “Man of the Hour” was dedicated to Layne Staley, who should have turned 49 years old that night. “Sonic Reducer” and “Blood” brought the first encore to a stunning finish, while “Alive,” Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” was a reminder that this was a party and a celebration.
But the band’s sense of place was best demonstrated during the main set’s “Lukin.” Typically, it’s a 60-second slice of breakneck punk leading into another furious song, but at its three-quarter mark, Vedder threw up his arms, shouted “Stop stop stop stop!” and slammed the band to a halt, immediately pointing into the center of the general admission pit.
“HEY! Hey mister! Hey! Hey! Get your finger out of that woman’s face, you motherf—”
And within seconds, he was gone. Security jumped in, the offender was expelled and Vedder took another moment to check in on everyone to make sure they were still ready and able and together.
“It took me a second — ma’am, you’re okay? You’re good? Okay…”
And with a count-off, the band launched back into the final 10 seconds of the song. With community preserved and the infiltrator gone, it was back to the music that keeps us all coming back. Elmo had made a long trek back home after Saturday’s show, but for this night, our friends Eric and Ryan came up augment the group. A late lunch and drinks at the new Revival Food Hall before the show quickly provided a rundown on what everyone was hoping for — Eric hadn’t seen “Immortality,” and Ryan is always hoping for “Given to Fly.” Both went home happy on those counts and then some.
After the last notes of “I’ve Got a Feeling” came down and the band said their goodbyes, most of the crowd in the sections surrounding me didn’t immediately move. With the stadium lights on and the stage dark and quiet, we were all lost in the moment and not ready for any of it to end. We started talking and helping each other take pictures. There were laughs and high-fives and just quick gestures to share the moment with our neighbors. It had been an exhausting three hours, but it’s never quite enough.
Just a few hours before getting on that plane out of Boston to Chicago, I wound up in the middle of a long conversation with a friend about all the weird and unique and funny and horrible aspects that made our hometown such a difficult place. Some of those feelings can probably be assigned to adolescent insecurity, but a lot of it was real — for a group of us, it was a painful setting and one that didn’t promote much in the way of growth or personal expression.
And a lot of us, even through all the anxiety and deep-seated terror of putting ourselves too far out there, kind of loosely banded together until high school or college ended. From there, connections become frayed as we all tried to find our own paths. There were new careers and cities and friends along the way. People lose touch, move away, meet new people. Some leave the earth. When I’m able to reconnect with one of these friends in a meaningful way, it’s a powerful experience. Friday night was absolutely that. And now they’re all on my mind.
In college, Pearl Jam obviously became a community for me, and it’s only expanded and grown in the years since. For three days, a group of us reveled in this band and getting to hang around Chicago together. We analyzed bootleg tapes and broke down setlists and shared stories, but we also talked over beers about our lives — careers, trips, experiences, drunk stories, whatever. Within the context of this band, we’ve created our own little world of acceptance, where knowing catalogs of setlists and song statistics and recording dates isn’t weird or frowned upon but celebrated with a drink and a laugh and another story.
This community that I’ve been accepted and welcomed into was at the forefront of this trip. But in the background was that conversation and the friends I had and everyone who’s still with us and who isn’t. While the band played Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on Saturday, still not 24 hours removed from the experience, I started to think of everyone. I don’t know that any of them liked Pearl Jam, necessarily. There’s a good chance they didn’t. But the words of pain receding and flowing into McCready’s guitar brought all of them back into my mind, kids who I hadn’t thought about or tried to block out for so long. And I ran through all the good ones in my head — the weirdos, the kids who just wanted to be themselves and wanted to help other people feel okay to be themselves — and the part they helped to play in getting us through.
And I looked around. It’s a new crowd, but here were 40,000 weirdos, swaying and singing, celebrating this little moment and how much it can all mean. I looked off, yanked on the sleeve of my t-shirt, started to dab my eye and felt like an idiot doing it. At 34, I’m still a version of the guarded 16-year-old who never felt totally comfortable, but in that moment everything felt okay. For the second time in 24 hours, I felt like I belonged. I felt safe. I never expected any of it.
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com