“We’ve got 99 problems, but a place to play ain’t one!” Eddie Vedder announced from the stage at Pearl Jam‘s first concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Friday night, kicking off their two-night stand at the venue. Anyone hoping for a reprise of Pearl Jam’s and Jay Z’s historic collaboration of “W.M.A.” and “99 Problems” from last year’s Made In America festival would be disappointed. Although, let’s be real: Pearl Jam doesn’t need help from anyone to put on an unbelievable concert.
Just days after the release of new album Lightning Bolt, the band seemed on a high. Maybe they’re happy with the album, and how it has been received. Or perhaps it’s just gratitude that they’ve attained the rare status of a band who can sell out multiple nights at a New York-area arena. They’re also one of the few bands with a two-decade history that can play new songs without creating a bathroom exodus. “Sirens,” the album’s second single, has become an immediate fan favorite and it sounds even bigger in an arena than through your car speakers.
First single “Mind Your Manners,” which nods to the band’s punk influences was greeted as enthusiastically as many of the older songs. The new album popped up throughout the set list: “Infallible” sounded more raw without Brendan O’Brien’s shiny production, and the title track was seemingly built for large rooms. “Let The Records Play” starts with a chooglin’ blues/boogie riff not unlike vintage ZZ Top, and is likely to become a concert staple. And opening song “Pendulum,” which featured Mike McCready playing his guitar with a bow, Zeppelin-style, is the latest in a series of mellow PJ songs that they’ve used to kick off their shows (“Oceans,” “Sometimes” and “Of The Girl” are some of their other quiet openers).
Not that Pearl Jam left their back catalog behind. After “Pendulum” they stayed downbeat with “Release” and the R.E.M.-ish “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” both of which saw Vedder splitting lead vocals with the crowd of thousands. The rest of the main set featured a number of favorites: “Dissident,” “Why Go,” “I Am Mine,” “Given To Fly,” “Spin The Black Circle” and the timeless “Corduroy.” The set also featured “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns,” by Mother Love Bone, the band that featured Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard before they formed Pearl Jam.
Although Pearl Jam were always the poster boys for “grunge” in the ’90s, it was a term they neither created nor wanted. Stone Gossard brought funk and hip-hop influences to the band, Jeff Ament was a progressive rock fan and Mike McCready seemed to love anything with guitar solos (supposedly a grunge taboo). On Friday night, he payed tribute to one of the great solos ever, with a note for note cover of Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption.” (It’s worth mentioning that, in the ’90s, Gossard’s band Brad covered Van Halen’s “Unchained”; if so-called “alternative rock” bands weren’t supposed to love the mighty VH, these guys never got the memo). McCready, wearing a New York Dolls t-shirt, lifted nearly every song with his soaring guitar solos — he remains one of the most underrated lead guitarists in rock today.
The encores mixed upbeat (“Got Some,” “Life Wasted”) with downbeat (“Just Breathe,” “Oceans”) and new (“Yellow Moon”) with old (“Alive”). One massive highlight was “Porch.” When the band played that song at New York’s Limelight 21 years ago, Vedder took the opportunity to climb the the rafters to the balcony of the club, and drop back down into the audience. A lot has changed in the two decades since, but this time, while McCready, Gossard and Ament (along with drummer Matt Cameron) were melting faces, Vedder grabbed onto one of the many lighting fixtures that hung down to the stage, and swung, Tarzan style, over his bandmates, creating such a spectacle that even McCready had to stop playing his axe long enough to take a photo of the spectacle.
Why is Pearl Jam so enduring? Their era of music seems to be treated as a quaint period of time, when music was important, meaningful, maybe a little too politically correct, and overly concerned with not “selling out.” But Pearl Jam’s secret sauce may be in “rearviewmirror,” which closed the first set. While Nirvana, Mudhoney and other critical darlings railed against whatever evil that put them in the mood to write, few of them ever saw a way out, or a way to transcend whatever held them down. When fans sing along with “rearviewmirror” — “I gather speed from you f****** with me/ Once and for all, I’m far away/ Saw things so much clearer/ Once you’re in my rearviewmirror,” it’s a moment. The song doesn’t get too specific with details, but it does offer a sense that, yes, “It gets better.” It would be interesting to hear the fans feelings about, and stories around that song, two decades after it’s original release. Or maybe the story is in how passionately they sing along with it, night after night.
Pearl Jam setlist 10/18/2013 at Barclays Center:
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Mind Your Manners
I Am Mine
Given to Fly
Eruption (Van Halen cover)
Spin the Black Circle
Chloe Dancer (Mother Love Bone cover)
Crown of Thorns (Mother Love Bone cover)
Let the Records Play
Do the Evolution
Sleight of Hand
(‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ tag)
Sonic Reducer (Dead Boys cover)