Nothing's not my fault: Pearl Jam returns to Fenway Park
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Even for me, there was a lot of Pearl Jam in the past month.
On the heels of traveling to Seattle for two otherworldly shows at Safeco Field, I spent the three weeks between those performances and their Sept. 2 and 4 shows at Boston’s Fenway Park practically re-immersed in their music — listening to shows, making playlists, talking about them far too much to people who were likely polite enough to tell me they didn’t really need to hear this.
But that’s how it goes and that’s how it’s been, and it doesn’t seem as if that story is exclusively mine. Walking around the park and just going about my business over the long Labor Day weekend, there were clearly a lot of tourists out and about, visitors given away by their t-shirts as fans in town to see the band.
Back to seeing them on home turf and absent the need to wander a city and take in as many sights as possible, for me it was all about the band this time around. And with that comes a hyper focus on the music itself — what’s played, how is it played and what, if anything, does it mean within the greater whole of Pearl Jam.
There were the proper homages to Fenway and the Red Sox each night, though far scaled down from the 2016 activities that included introducing Kevin Youkilis and letting Bronson Arroyo strum along with a song. This time out, it was reserved to a quick mention of the Sox’ current run of dominance, Eddie Vedder sporting Blake Swihart’s catcher’s helmet during the first night’s finale and donning (what I assume to be) Johnny Pesky’s aged no. 22 jersey from his managing stint in the mid-1960s.
No, on their second stand at this venue, this was about the music, played for those fans who have spent so long following them around the western world and the ones who were seeing them for the first time.
A co-worker of mine was among the latter group. Just due all the things that happen in life, he’d lost track with the band sometime in the mid-1990s, but was still a fan, had been looking for tickets and was able to get one a couple of days before the Sunday opener. In the immediate aftermath, he texted me that “words seem insufficient right now,” and later noted that the entire experience “gets in your bones a little bit. I was even a little upset that I wasn’t going the second night. I wanted to see more.”
Not that there wasn’t enough to see that first night. Guitarist Mike McCready was more than on his game, performing his usual Hendrixian homage during “Even Flow” and playing a transcendent solo during the ending of “Black” that seemed to stop time. It stretched on long enough that, during the quiet and very extended coda, Vedder began to overlay lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend” as the final notes seemed to fall out of the guitar bridge.
Then there are those rare gems. The crowd got a real treat when native son Bill Janovitz came out as the band tore through Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade,” a pairing that would reappear on Tuesday night. But considering the crowd, the bigger reactions came when they broke out “Present Tense” in the first encore, followed shortly by a rare and intense reading on “Tremor Christ.” This was balanced out by a kind of giddy sense of true shock when they eased into “Out of My Mind” to begin the second encore — just the fourth time that song has ever been played, and the first since the closing of Philadelphia’s Spectrum on Halloween 2009.
That second night saw more of walking that line between pleasing any relative newcomers and keeping the ridiculous hardcore faction satisfied. Where the first night started quietly with “Sometimes” and “Release,” the second night blew through the gate with “Given to Fly,” “Animal” and “Save You.” More deep tracks were dug out, like the B-side “U,” a take on “Red Mosquito” featuring photographer Danny Clinch on harmonica and “Arms Aloft,” a Joe Strummer cover that also serves as an homage to the man himself. They even teased “Dirty Frank,” absent from setlists since 2006, during the intro to “Dirty Water,” played with Janovitz returning on vocals.
In the midst of this, there’s new music that cracks through the classics and the rarities. The Tuesday show saw the band break out their timely and rage-fueled single “Can’t Deny Me,” which seemed to carry an extra charge with Vedder freed from his usual cowbell duties on this song. Instead of keeping time with his right hand, he tore everything down, scratching his throat into a roaring howl. There was a fire there and it burned.
But the biggest surprise, clearly, was a version of “Immortality” that included not just its extended guitar introduction, but also most of its original lyrics. The band debuted “Immortality” at the now-deceased Boston Garden on April 11, 1994, and played it again the following night in the city’s Orpheum Theatre in a performance that has been immortalized on the Live at the Orpheum album included in the deluxe versions of the Vs./Vitalogy box set. On those two nights, the song traced a much different path than the version that would be released months later on Vitalogy — the lyrics were in the first person and seemed to be a much more direct message from Vedder to the world than the cautionary tale that eventually found its way to vinyl.
At least within my immediate section, there was instant recognition as he deviated from the song’s typical journey:
“I could take the sun, pour a cup to share with everyone
Need to feel some comfort in this world
I can’t take it all, I won’t say that nothing’s not my fault
I can feel the future in the wind”
The history of that song cannot be ignored. Though Vedder has repeated that the song is not about Kurt Cobain and his suicide, it hasn’t stopped fans from interpreting it that way. The original words and the timing of its debut — just three days after the world learned of Cobain’s death — seemed to point even more sharply to that interpretation.
And then there’s everything after. While not grounded totally in reality — Mark Lanegan and Mark Arm are still growling and thriving, thank you — there’s now the interpretation that Vedder and Pearl Jam are the last columns standing, the survivors of the scene that accidentally conquered the airwaves 25 years ago. With that comes a different kind of responsibility than they’ve had before, as some kind of keeper of this flame.
How do they carry that on? They could go full nostalgia mode and fill out every set with those 1991-94 hits, but as noted here and most everywhere, they don’t. They respect the music that has allowed them to fill up places like Fenway Park for multiple nights in multiple cities, they dig deep into the crowded corners of their catalog and they still look for new sounds and new songs to keep the old ones fresher and give the entire exercise a new context.
Towards the end of the second night, Vedder noted that this would be the last time they’d be playing together until they return to the studio to make new music. It’s a goodbye for now, with the promise of a return with new songs and new surprises. I’ll be waiting, looking for those inspired and moments and attempting to capture it all. I don’t think I’ll be alone.
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com