Collapsing, rebuilding and reigniting with Pearl Jam in Arizona
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It didn’t take long to feel overwhelmed.
From the opening notes of the night’s first song, I just sort let the vibe carry me. Stone Gossard’s guitar was droning, Eddie Vedder’s voice just above a growl. I was back in Gila River Arena and Glendale, Ariz., for the first time in years, in the presence of friends I hadn’t seen in just as long. I wasn’t totally convinced any of these things would happen again.
That moment won the night. It felt heavy and weightless at once. It rocked and stomped and swayed. And all the while, it repeated a mantra: Don’t give up.
So, seeing Pearl Jam again, on this fourth night on their Gigaton tour, meant I’d finally have to go back to Phoenix.
It’s probably not particularly entertaining to the reader, or helpful to myself, to rehash a bunch of nonsense as to why I didn’t have a great go of things living the Valley of the Sun, or why I was having mild pangs of panic at the thought of returning for the first time in almost 13 years. But suffice it to say, I didn’t particularly enjoy my experience living there, and haven’t had much desire to go back.
But I stayed in touch with my buddy Eddie through the years. We first met in 2008 when he tagged along with a contingent to the pub one night. When he walked in wearing an Alice in Chains t-shirt, I remember thinking, “well, I have to talk to this guy.” It built from there, and at some point when Pearl Jam came up in conversation, it was agreed that we definitely had to catch them the next time they came to Phoenix.
This was easier said than done. They didn’t make it back to the Valley until 2013, by which time I was very much on the other side of the country. But when the 2020 Gigaton tour was first announced, their April 11 date fell right in line with a pre-planned vacation — I was supposed to be stopping in Phoenix on a layover back to Boston that night anyway, and there they were. Tickets were acquired, reservations booked, we were on our way.
But in March 2020, everything blew up and caved in, and it wasn’t just limited to a concert tour.
Everything about this show and the tour so far feels decidedly old school. The band is back to touring arenas in cities that aren’t Seattle, Chicago or Boston; the setlist has been trimmed back from three-hour marathons, down to just north of two hours; few if any covers have been appearing in the set; and all stage decoration has been dispensed with, apart from the band’s own equipment forming the back line with drummer Matt Cameron.
It was within this setting, with most of the lights out, that the band marched out on stage and began with “Wash,” the B-side to their debut single “Alive.” It was slow and burning and ominous, and served as a major contrast to “Given to Fly,” which lifted up the crowd and translated that same limitless feeling of the desert skyscape.
Where recent tours have seen longer shows and longer speeches from Vedder to match, tonight he was much more pointed in his words. He shared a quick aside about getting stuck in Gila Bend in the late 1980s on his way back to San Diego, and later, instead of stream-of-conscience thoughts on politics and current events, he directed a pointed message late in the main set:
“People have the right to privacy, and people should have the freedom to choose. Make a difference, please. Elections, they have consequences. Join us, we applaud you, here’s to our future.”
That kind of activism is also in keeping with 30 years of work, and tonight it was accompanied by a phone number for U.S. residents (text CHOICE to 855-812-VOTE) and a particularly heavy version of “Daughter” that was coupled with a poignant “W.M.A.”
And on the musical side of things, I’m not sure how it can still be the case after more than three decades, but Mike McCready remains the band’s secret weapon. He came out of the gate firing with those nasty little fills on “Wash,” right through to his opus on the closing “Yellow Ledbetter.” And he nary missed an opportunity to flatten the crowd. Through the opening trills on “Why Go,” his centerpiece solo on “Even Flow” and, perhaps most potently, on the closing solo to “Black,” he seemed to channel all the demons that he and the band and everyone in attendance have had to carry on this long road to the present.
Even if it’s not intentional, it’s nights like this that can serve as a crystalizing moment. Among the 19,000 fans scattered through the building, everyone has had to struggle and scrape and do whatever necessary to get by, even if it means simply running on inertia and instinct to survive. Everyone carries a load, and the power in a show like tonight’s is its ability to allow the listener to throw all of that off their collective shoulders, onto the music and out through the arena roof. It’s freeing.
Before “Better Man,” Vedder recounted a story of a fan who wrote in that her sister had been through one bout with the coronavirus, before a second took its ultimate swipe in February 2021. That we were all here in this arena at all felt like a miracle, and seemed impossible not long ago.
By the end of April 2020, I had been indoors for six weeks. And before the dog arrived on our doorstep at that time, I had barely stepped outside. There were just a lot of zoom calls and movies and whatever else to fill the gaps once occupied by restaurants and bars and concerts and friends.
I also hadn’t spoken to Eddie since early March, when the original concert date was postponed. But that wasn’t unusual — people get busy, so going six or eight weeks between texts before one of us would send a “How the hell are ya!” message to the other was typical. But it was around this time that I got a note from him that explained this gap in communication was different:
“Well, I’ve been in isolation for nearly 40 days, 20 of which I was on a ventilator. Covid. Almost died, man. I get to go home in a couple of days. Can’t fucking wait.”
And there it was. He came down with it early in the pandemic and went through hell just trying to get a test when he was clearly ill, before his wife, Anne, was finally able to get him into a hospital. He’s recounted his story in a few places, including this interview with Anderson Cooper, but from our side of the world, it was the most terrifying example of what the virus could do that I’d personally witnessed. This was real and it could take down a healthy person without warning. And with all the talk incorporating phrases like “back to normal” or “post-pandemic,” there’s always been this feeling that we’re barely past anything, and the reality that, in just this country, there are almost a million people who aren’t here anymore.
But we keep going. Eddie has had his own travails in recovery and every day is a step forward, with the horror still lurking in the rearview mirror. I was just happy he made it. It wasn’t the most important thing in the world, but when the makeup date was finally announced two years later, I knew we were going to this show.
Which brings us back to Phoenix. Or it brings me back, at least.
If you know me in real life, you may have heard me dump on this city more than anyone should be forced to listen. I’ll take in a Pearl Jam show anywhere, but even this felt like a stretch. And if I didn’t have a friend there and wasn’t already supposed to be laying over in the city on the original date, I would’ve gone to see them anywhere else. I left Arizona on bad terms and harsh feelings and every other negative emotion available, and while I’ve worked on carrying on and forgiving and letting go in other aspects of my life, I didn’t see any need to let that city off the hook.
But there was a lot I’d forgotten about the region. Like it’s massive spread, a sprawl spaced out by adobe structures and sand and brush and an incredible amount of new development — an impressive feat for a metropolis that already felt overdeveloped a dozen years ago. Then there’s how the atmosphere sucks all the moisture out of your body to the point I was itching for a chapstick and a liter-sized bottle of water at all times. Or just how goddamn beige everything is. But there were parts that surprised me. Arriving from one of the colder springs on record in New England, seeing the sun and not worrying about rain for a couple of days was a nice departure.
And then there was my last morning there, sitting on a patio outside the hotel with my notebook and a cup of coffee. Birds were hopping in and out of the scene, the traffic noise was well insulated by the opposite side of the building and a nice breeze had drifted in from the sun to the shade. It was a specific sensation I’d forgotten about, that humidity free cooling effect. I haven’t been anywhere else where the air feels quite like that, and I’d forgotten how common that vibe was for a couple of years. Every morning I’d walk outside, maybe just to get in a walk before the sun got down to business, and that breeze would lift me out of the previous day and into the next. I’d missed that.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand that I was projecting most of my grief and general unhappiness onto a city that wasn’t interested in defending itself. It was never the right place or right situation for me, but it’s a region with its own character, for good or bad. And there was more good than I’d been able to see for some time. After waiting two years for the show and more than a decade to even set foot in the state, it all seemed to come together at the right time.
Right as the band was about to kick into “Corduroy,” Vedder summed the vibe up a bit more neatly:
“Our friend Tom Petty used to say, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’ Well the wait is over, and we’re so happy to be here.”
With all that, we still have more music to discuss. And this show was a barn-burner.
We were joined by Eddie’s friend Mark, and after a trip to a brewery in downtown Phoenix, we made the 30-minute trek across the Valley into Glendale, where we were able to score a parking spot in the shade and enjoy some tailgate action before the show. And it took no time to make friends in the parking lot and start trading tour stories — Mark had caught Vedder’s Earthling tour in Seattle in February, and our new neighbor Jeff had caught the band’s Los Angeles shows over the weekend. Eddie was making his Pearl Jam debut. From there, we took a ceremonial shot of Jamison, and then it was into the arena to finally see these guys play.
Apart from a handful of festival dates late in 2021, the band itself was early into their first real tour in four years. Two years after its release, Pearl Jam is finally able to give the songs from Gigaton a real go on stage, and the four that appeared here matched the energy of their older stuff. “Quick Escape,” in particular, was a scorcher and is my pick for their strongest track from the last three LPs. And with the help of Josh Klinghoffer, who also opened in his Pluralone guise, the band was able to pull off the many moving parts of “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” complete with Gossard on bass and Jeff Ament alternating between guitar and keys.
That energy carried through the show, to the point that Vedder started calling audibles on the set, ditching a few slower tracks in favor of anything that kept the party rolling. In the encore, “Smile” maintained the raucous atmosphere, while McCready paid tribute to Eddie Van Halen with his interpretation of “Eruption,” tossing in a few riffs from “You Really Got Me” as a bridge to a devastating “Do the Evolution.”
That burning energy didn’t let up. By the time the house lights kicked on during the closing solo of “Alive,” it was a celebration of life and all its brilliant realities. And in a fitting night cap, Vedder and McCready serenaded the crowd with “Yellow Ledbetter,” with Vedder visibly moved by the reception and McCready dangling his legs off the side of the stage while he sent the crowd home with his last solo of the night. Where the rest of the evening saw him blasting away, he brought the temperature down to its coolest point, a lullaby on guitar via Hendrix, weaving all the years and emotion into those final notes.
Years ago, in those primordial days of the internet, I saw a picture of a fan who had two interlocking rings tattooed onto his leg, with “don’t give up” scrawled below it. I hadn’t seen that design to that point, but it came from one of Pearl Jam’s early tour t-shirts, in the era when Ten was throwing the band out of the clubs and onto Time magazine. It always stuck with me — it felt like one of the great, unifying messages of the band and its output.
And that was before life grabbed us all by the throat and threw us against a wall. Maybe it’s the times or the process of age, but everything seems to either run a little deeper or simply escape over the edge now. I think about my (admittedly mild in the grand scheme) struggles through the years, and I think about Eddie going through hell in a gas can and out again, and the weights every one of those fans carried into the building, all of them looking for an escape and an outlet and simply an excuse to not worry for a few hours and enjoy the festivities.
After our commemorative shot, Eddie and I went inside and got into what was a long, but still the shortest we saw, line for t-shirts and the like. We finally got within sight of the options, and one shirt caught my eye immediately. Just as quickly, Eddie said to me, “I’m thinking no. 2, right?”
“That’s what I was looking at.”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org