Traveling to Minnesota with Pearl Jam and everyone along the way
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In the interest of brevity, here’s a quick version of this naval-gazing exercise, disguised here as a concert report. On Aug. 31 and Sept. 2, 2023, Pearl Jam rolled into St. Paul to open their 2023 tour, threw their catalog into a hat and pulled out two unique shows that hit on every point of their extensive career, proved their still in fine voice and fighting shape and ultimately left thousands of fans deliriously happy at its conclusion.
So. With all that said, and with so much said in the past in this space about this band, what else is left to discuss? As it happens, there’s quite a bit and I have some things I’d like to say. Which can be an issue at times, but I’ll elaborate as we go on.
But the band kept their sterling live reputation in shape, crafting two nights that were unique in themselves and a distinct experience from the many other nights I’ve seen them. And it has to do with the band, sure, but also the setting and the vibes and the people present. And all that can be difficult to put into words.
Coinciding with these two shows, at the Xcel Energy Center and home of the Minnesota Wild, happens to be the Minnesota State Fair, the biggest state fair in the country. And there were no shortage of big-name headliners, with Duran Duran, the Jonas Brothers and the Hold Steady all headlining between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2. People fly in from thousands of miles away to take in the festivities.
In that same time span, walking around downtown St. Paul, if those folks were present, they were outnumbered to an insane degree. I’d flown in from New England, and accompanying me were long-standing buddies Rick and Matt, with Rick taking in the first show and Matt the second, each flying in from home for the occasion. We’ve all been friends for years thanks to this band, and this was a chance to catch up and catch another couple of shows. Our entire hotel was a parade of concert t-shirts and hats from tours dating back two decades. Every restaurant and bar was packed with more fans and more memorabilia. The line for the general admission pit began down Kellogg Blvd. 48 hours before the doors opened, with fans lining up for merchandise for hours for a shot at posters and stickers. And coming out of every window of every establishment was just more Pearl Jam music.
Rick and I eschewed the lines, though, taking our chances at gear inside the arena and trading it for a chance to better catch up and take in the festivities. And in an effort to have some fun with the fans, we found a bar with a Touchtunes box, with Rick dialing up song after song from Taylor Swift just to get a reaction (note: this was not some ironic joke — he made it to the Eras tour and meant it, and I have come to finally appreciate the hustle). And we did get a reaction from our bartender at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub, who appreciated it and afterwards kept recognizing us when we kept returning to that oasis of hockey glory afterwards.
But we have a show to discuss, and if there’s any question about our collective passion and admitted nerddom for this band, it was answered when they walked out on the first night and opened with “Indifference.” A collective gasp from the crowd as this tune, which, when it is played, is typically the set closer and a calming send off for the evening. Here, it was opening a show for only the second time ever, the first occurring 29 years ago in Denver. It also gave me the strange occurrence of seeing the band, essentially, play the same song twice in a row, with it appearing as the last song in Québec City last year.
A soaring “Black,” complete with the “We Belong Together” tag and Mike McCready kicking over his chair as he launched into yet another mind-bending solo, completed the now-customary mellow five-song set to start the show, before a gauntlet of “Given to Fly,” “Mind Your Manners” and “Why Go” hit the crowd in the face. Momentum hardly let up from there, right through the closing “Alive” in the encore before everyone got a chance to exhale on the closing “Yellow Ledbetter” and one more blazing McCready solo. As we left the arena, those same 20,000 fans that had taken over every establishment within a mile were let back out on the town, and more Pearl Jam music filled the air at each one.
I know other fan bases have the ability to swarm and conquer a city for a few days in benevolent fashion, and even if I like those other bands, I’m not all in on them. I am on this one, and to say I’m satisfied and fulfilled by the entire experience, zooming in close to 30 years now, would be a drastic understatement.
This being Labor Day weekend, we weren’t the only game in town, and with Week 1 of the college football season on tap, Matt organized a trip to a live taping of the Split Zone Duo podcast taking place across the river in Minneapolis. Appropriately enough, if you’re looking for another excellent community built by good people on a shared obsession that’s grown its own kind of magic, there it is. Beverages were had, hugs were exchanged and jokes were made at the expense of nearly every team’s fanbase, all of whom convene every Saturday to watch absolute nonsense take place in a bid for athletic and academic superiority. I’m a relative newcomer to that world, and they made me feel like I belonged.
Which folded nicely into Saturday, beginning with finding more good Pearl Jam and football folks to watch Colorado, Deion Sanders and his 147 transfers up-end TCU. Later, following more beer and fried cheese, I spotted two Tragically Hip fans and basically accosted them so that I could talk to someone about how much I love the Hip. Stunningly, one of them was in our row later that night. I’m sure he was thrilled to see me.
On and on this goes and this all leads, of course, to the second night of the tour and our little excursion here. And in keeping with their unpredictable tradition, the band trotted out a totally new setlist, repeating only five songs from the previous show and touching on each of their 11 albums to date. And as Matt pointed out, for all the talk of setlist hopes and wanting to hear this song or that, the band has a knack for giving fans exactly what they need, even if we’re not thinking of that. To wit: “Do the Evolution” kicking off the main set after the semi-acoustic seated portion, or “Severed Hand” being dusted off, “In Hiding” flying in immediately afterwards and a surprise reading of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” rolling right into “I Am Mine.” All of it more than welcome, and none of it discussed as possibilities beforehand.
And honestly, sensory overload kicks in and it all gets a bit blurry, which is why I spend so much time scribbling down nearly illegible notes during the show. For example, the three exclamation marks (!!!) noting “Insignificance” on the first night, where I felt like my brain was melting and my neighbor from New Jersey seated next to me nearly cried. And Eddie Vedder nearly made the entire audience weep before his introduction to “Wildflowers” in night one and “I Won’t Back Down” on this evening, using Tom Petty’s immortal compositions to punctuate the great need and obligation to try to live as fully as possible as often as possible.
They capped this show with one more tribute to Minnesota and one of its greatest products, bringing the house down with a rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” aided by sideman Josh Klinghoffer and the folks from support act Deep Sea Diver. Houselights up, tambourines flying and musicians huddled around all the available microphones, it was a final thank you and goodbye to an incredible pair of cities that had just hosted an incredible pair of shows.
So. Back to our opening point, almost designed to keep casual readers from getting this far: what else is there to say about this band and the music? Why another thousand-word screed on spending a lot of money to fly halfway across the country to see a band?
In my most anxiety ridden moments, I have the feeling — at least partially true, I’m convinced — that I’m full of shit and I need to shut up. In conversation with people, and especially stretched out over two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve hours, my brain is flying at a mile a minute, I’m trying to articulate stories and ideas and thoughts and jokes on the fly, and my suspicion is that most of what I’m saying doesn’t make sense. That I’m annoying and everyone else is just pleasantly going along with this basket case who’s now shouting about football and hockey and beer and the Tragically Hip and Taylor Swift and whatever else is crossing my line of sight.
What keeps everyone coming back, descending on cities like St. Paul and Minneapolis like t-shirt clad poster-toting locusts, pumping every jukebox full of these songs and comparing setlists afterwards? Of course it’s the music, in part. That’s the keystone to all of this. We were all, at one point, sitting alone in our rooms, listening along and connecting with the band in a way that didn’t quite happen with any other band. Other folks have other bands for this, certainly. But we have this one.
But the rest encompasses everything else. Making friends on those weird, early days of the internet, before every fiber of our digital being was collected and sorted and monetized, and remaining friends through the years to come, with marriages and kids and tragedies and miracles dotting the way. It blows my mind that these things are possible, that an offhand comment on a message board in 2002 can, more than 20 years later, turn into everyone agreeing to fly into another city to spend a couple of days soaking in the atmosphere and reminiscing and making new friends and memories on the way, capped with a night with the greatest live band we might ever encounter.
So that’s why I’m writing this. In the moment and out loud, I’m an overexcited mess who can’t properly funnel the words in real time and convey what I want to convey. Afterwards, alone with my thoughts and combing through the notes I’ve taken along the way, I can map it out and get the message across a bit more clearly.
And after all that, the message is simple: thank you. Thank you Rick and Matt for taking the time, for hanging in there and for indulging me, and thanks to everyone else we met along the way, football fans and podcast denizens and hockey bar employees included. The shows are great and they create incredible memories, but it’s the rest that keeps it all meaningful. I’ll keep it all with me as long as I can.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org