Pearl Jam teams with Seattle to bring its music home
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“We are Pearl Jam, we are from Seattle, Washington.”
So went Eddie Vedder’s introduction of the band, five songs into the first of two nights at Seattle’s Safeco Field, and after spending even a nominal amount of time in the city, nothing could have been more obvious. Band logos were plastered on every other building. T-shirts clad fans — tourists and residents alike — flooded the streets. Their songs blared out of bars, cars and pedicabs. This was as complete a takeover of a municipality by a musical artist as I’ve ever witness. And it was glorious.
The lingering high that exists walking out of a Pearl Jam show is hard to explain to the uninitiated, but it’s especially strange when that walk out of a venue, after more than three hours of punishing, inspirational music, includes a funnel into Seattle’s Pioneer Square and ends with a beer at the Central Saloon, whose stage once hosted the likes of Green River and Mother Love Bone.
It’s not as though the concert setlists were the most varied ever — there were certainly a number of surprises, even while songs like “Porch,” “rearviewmirror,” “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter” occupied consistent slots each night. Seeing Pearl Jam in Seattle felt different, from touchdown to takeoff four days later. Maybe it was internal projection or simple delusion of not wanting to be disappointed, but I can’t remember seeing a city and a band work in concert together this well before. I initially made these plans to see friends and watch the band play two great shows. The rest was inspiring on a new, unexpected level.
Seeing this band in this city has long been present as a “must-do” item on my checklist. Seeing them ply their trade as often as possible is always the edict, but certain venues and locations take precedent. And catching them in their hometown over two dates, with the proceeds designed to help several initiatives to combat the region’s growing homelessness problem, went beyond my most elaborate fantasies.
“So I guess that must mean we’re at home,” he continued. “It means that you’re home.”
Seattle, and its nearby locales across Washington, have given the music world too many names to list here, but among them: Jimi Hendrix, Heart, the Sonics, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Bikini Kill, Tad, Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, 7 Year Bitch, Foo Fighters, Brandi Carlile, Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes and, obviously, Pearl Jam. Musically, the city far out-punches its weight, and for that alone it’s always felt special.
And this was my third trip through Seattle. The first was simply a visit to explore one of the country’s great cities, the second a welcome weekend stopover en route back to Boston from Alaska. It was enough of a taste that I had an idea of what the neighborhoods were like, and where I could confidently spend my time in the mornings and afternoons on my own before meeting up with friends for the shows.
But this felt like a first trip in some ways. Through all these years of obsessively listening to Pearl Jam, collecting records and bootlegs and cataloging their every move as a band, this was an opportunity to see them on their home turf, in front of the crowd that saw them grow up and mark their name among the most successful bands to ever emerge from the United States.
In that light, the city looked different. There were already a number of Pearl Jam t-shirts present during my layover in Philadelphia. Stepping through the gate at SeaTac, travelers were greeted by a giant banner trumpeting the concerts, just above directional signals to gate D7. Their logos were plastered in train stations, along sides of buildings and on posters around the city. Their exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture was a highlight on the local news.
At the heart of all of this was the cause behind it. Playing charity shows in their hometown is old hat for the band, but the Home Shows initiative to help combat the rising homelessness rate in Seattle propelling these two nights at Safeco was certainly more ambitious than usual. And before the first notes of the first date, the band had recruited enough partners in the region to raise more than $11.5 million for the cause.
In the midst of all this, it was hard not to think back to the final show of their 2000 tour, the second of two nights at Key Arena in Seattle and an epic performance that has lived on as a treasured live album. Those dates were benefits for the city as well, though there was much more scrutiny around the shows, with the city forcing the band to invest in extra security and steer clear of its draconian teen dance ordinance. It all culminated in a rant by Vedder towards the end of the night, punctuated by an exasperated plea of, “when will (we) get some respect in this town? When will music get some respect in this fucking town?”
Nearly 18 years later, it’s completely turned around. The band set up shop in the Emerald City for the first time in five years, and Seattle responded with open arms — restaurants and bars donated proceeds to the Home Shows cause, the city flew a Pearl Jam flag from the Space Needle and welcomed in a bunch of misfits with disposable income who are all too happy to indulge their curiosities and help out in the process. Though the irony of seeing hundreds of fans camping out for days in an effort to get spots up front — for shows aiming to end the need for people to have to camp out on sidewalks — wasn’t lost on the band. Vedder mentioned as much from the stage on the second night. But on that first night, he was singing the praises of everyone who helped to make their efforts a success.
“This city of Seattle could prove to the rest of the nation that it could happen here, it could happen anywhere and we could eradicate this problem of homeless neighbors in our city, when we’re as profitable as we’ve ever been. We can beat this, and we can do it together.”
As the show rolls on, so begins the game-within-the-game: tracking the setlist and waiting for the surprises.
There are the songs that almost always dot the program: “Even Flow,” “Corduroy,” “Do the Evolution” and “Alive” appear just about every night these days, with “Given to Fly,” “Better Man,” “Yellow Ledbetter” and “Lightning Bolt” nearly as common. There are the cynical sorts who resent those constants, but it’s hard to complain when every of those songs sound so good in the moment.
But those rare jewels do liven up the proceedings and keep the hardcore as excited as the casual fans would be for “Even Flow.” It’s why hearing “Nothing as it Seems” on the second night had me screaming, as did “All Those Yesterdays,” for so long absent from their live shows.
Those setlist gems were certainly cherished. On the first night, they dug out “Throw Your Hatred Down” from Mirror Ball, that monster record they recorded with Neil Young in 1995. “Help Help” returned to the setlist, aided by Vedder’s solo reading of the Beatles’ “Help” as a introduction. He later debuted a cover of the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends” as his daughters danced with their teachers on stage behind him. The second night saw the band make dedications to Tom Petty while Vedder covered “I Won’t Back Down” under the gleam of thousands of iphone camera lights, followed by blowing the dust off two quiet treasures, “Thin Air” and “All or None.”
Not surprisingly, the best moments came when the city was made to be the star. Brandi Carlile joined the band on their cover of her track “Again Today” on Wednesday. Friday saw Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil jump up for MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” and he was featured alongside Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner on “Search and Destroy” and “Sonic Reducer,” with Arm offering up a crushing reminder that his raspy howl might be the voice that best defines the moment when Seattle’s music ruled the world.
Yet it was Thayil’s band Soundgarden that was a constant on stage each evening. Obviously, drummer Matt Cameron was a central member of that band, and on the first night, he wore a version of the black “90” t-shirt that Chris Cornell wore so often. The second night, Jeff Ament wore that shirt, while Cameron wore a classic Soundgarden shirt, completely with the “TOTAL FUCKING GODHEAD” slogan on the back — coined by Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt to best describe Soundgarden’s gloriously brutal sound.
All that, and it was still a shock when the band ventured deep into Cornell’s catalog in the middle of the second show. They reached down and pulled out “Missing,” a track that resurfaced during the Temple of the Dog tour in 2016 and remained unreleased until appearing on the deluxe reissue of the Singles soundtrack last year. Coming out of “Even Flow,” the drums and bass settled into a menacing groove as Vedder hit a low growl on a set of lyrics that, even considering Cornell’s body of work, are incredibly dark. The intensity was palpable as Vedder belted out “I’ve been hard to hold / and I’m missing / missing / missing / missing.”
Tellingly, there was no rambling speech by Vedder before or after the song. There was no soliloquy, no call for a moment of silence. There clearly remains a great deal of hurt over Cornell’s death, and they channelled it into one of the great, lost moments of his career. Music defined so much of the culture of Seattle for so long, and Cornell was one of the titans at the center of it. Within Pearl Jam, he had a number of great friends and bandmates. His influence was undeniable, and his loss still hangs over all of them. In tribute, they gritted their teeth and gave an impassioned reading to one of his songs.
Each night held a distinct character. The first was nearly flawless, save for a stumble at the beginning of “Go” that Cameron and guitarist Stone Gossard turned into a quick jam before segueing back into the introduction. The second night was much looser, with more tiny flubs that offered little touches of character and humor. None of them topped the moment when Vedder seemed to lose his place at the beginning of “rearviewmirror,” joking that all he could hear in his head was ABBA’s “Fernando” before playing a snippet of that.
But so it was that the second night felt much closer to the band that crushed it on their first few tours — it was edgier to the point that their feet slipped oh-so-close off the cliff. The weight of everything seemed to boil over during that show. They expanded their bully pulpit to campaign to save the Showbox, a classic venue which stands under threat of redevelopment. Cameron punished his drums at the end of “Immortality,” while Mike McCready was especially unhinged during his “Even Flow” solo, going to his knees and flying into his amp stacks while strands of delayed distortion shot out. They broke “Leash” out of its cage in all its unhinged glory. There was real anger while they crunched out their new single “Can’t Deny Me” and lamented the horrific lack of empathy poisoning the nation and its current administration.
Maybe that was the crux of it. For all their success, they enter their 28th year as a band in a country as fraught with division and malevolence as ever, in a city where the fruits of wild success have been funneled to the top and left those less fortunate sleeping on the curb. They could easily be playing greatest hits shows night after night without worrying about anything else. Or they could use their status to raise these issues, attempt to make a difference and utilize the frustration behind all of it to lift their music to a new level.
Any of these aspects — the tributes, the surprises, the charity, the activism — can and have been present at Pearl Jam shows around the world. They don’t always come together on the same night, though, and the setting played its part in that. In that way, Seattle became an additional member of the band. They worked together to create two memorable nights of music, with hopefully more change and growth to come beyond that.
And after the last song of the last show, I stood in a corner of Seattle’s oldest tavern with a friend and a can of beer and tried to process all of this. In that moment, Vedder wasn’t wrong. It felt like I was at home.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org