There are acoustic shows and there are acoustic shows - and then there’s the lengthy, inspired and inspiring performance Eddie Vedder gave Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, which is a breed apart.
There are precedents for it, sure - Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Ray Davies, to name just a few forebears, have all done something similar in this same venue, Elvis Costello and Ed-friend Pete Townshend at places nearby. Vedder’s living-room setup here (giant speakers behind him, a reel-to-reel player to his left, travel cases at his feet), to say nothing of the relaxed but often intense atmosphere of this encounter, certainly suggests he has learned much from studying their examples.
Yet Vedder has placed his own spin on this storyteller routine, as befits the first-ever solo tour from the increasingly iconic Pearl Jam frontman. (The mere 10-date West Coast run wraps with shows Tuesday and Wednesday at San Diego’s Spreckels Theater.)
He has made solo appearances before, of course - often in L.A. He turned up at a tribute to the Ramones at the Avalon, a benefit for tsunami victims in 2005 at the Wiltern, and he served up a fairly full-length solo set at Royce Hall when Sonic Youth curated All Tomorrow’s Parties at UCLA earlier this decade. But Vedder, 43, seems clearly aware of the aura of prestige that surrounds this particular run, enhancing it via custom-designed playbills spotlighting both Vedder’s causes (freeing the West Memphis Three, saving Trestles, bringing an end to the Iraq War) and the various accomplishments of everyone involved in the tour, including opening act Liam Finn.
Which of his own credits Vedder chose to highlight, however, speaks to the sort of two-hour-plus performances he gave Saturday. Pearl Jam might as well be a footnote. Instead, his biography cites his film work, from cameos in “Singles” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” to, more importantly, his contributions to soundtracks, leading to last year’s widely regarded work for Sean Penn’s adaptation of the free-spirit saga “Into the Wild,” the impetus for this outing.
Thus, rather than this evening being a survey of past glories dappled by a few new bits (as a Young or Springsteen gig would be), Vedder’s set cautiously avoided easy nostalgia and simple crowd-elating pleasures by focusing on his developing body of work apart from Pearl Jam.
Not that PJ’s catalog went unrepresented; Vedder just selected songs wisely. The peacefulness of “Around the Bend,” the fierce independence of “I Am Mine,” the anti-materialism of “Drifting,” the poignancy of “Man of the Hour” and the ukulele ditty “Soon Forget,” the frustration of “Porch” - all of them contributed to a thematic whole, perfectly complementing the stretch of similarly inclined “Into the Wild” material, placed as centerpiece. (He also finally received his Golden Globe for it, in a surprise moment that seemed to embarrass him.)
In doing so, Vedder somewhat deterred the usual Pearl Jam crazies from singing along to every utterance, though he did have to quell their enthusiasm at the outset. Noticing that the entire audience leapt to its feet upon his arrival - and showed no signs of settling in for the night - Vedder interrupted the first verse of his opening cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow” to ensure the right mood was being set. “The thing that’s nice about a theater,” he pointed out, “is that you can all sit down and relax. That’s why I put on the coat.”
And still segments of the crowd insisted on being obnoxious, incessantly hollering out requests between songs, at times interrupting his tales and quips (and dead-on Matt Dillon impersonation) with unintelligible hosannas. I was gratefully in a quieter, more reverent section, but this was Dave Matthews at the Pantages all over again, with fans unable to draw the distinction between an arena experience where overcome excitement is welcome and an intimate gathering where respect for the artist and the atmosphere is a must. Makes me disappointed with my generation - you’d never see this sort of poor behavior at a Springsteen acoustic gig.
What (mostly) shut `em up were illuminating moments when Vedder shared songs by his influences, many of them learned from films, or redone for the movies (like his handling of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” from “I Am Sam”). He recalled how he came to know Cat Stevens, for instance: “You couldn’t get a `Harold & Maude’ soundtrack. You had to get four or five Cat Stevens records and make one yourself.” Then he paid homage with back-to-back covers, a soulful “Trouble” and, on banjo, a rousing “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.”
That also left me wondering if his elegiac rendition of Dylan’s “Forever Young” wasn’t learned from “The Last Waltz.” The Bard’s “Masters of War,” however, here delivered with matter-of-fact coldness, has been in Vedder’s playbook for so long now, some fans react as if he wrote it.
Other nods to formative songwriters this night also stayed on point: the rural impressionism of James Taylor’s “Millworker,” the exuberant release and stoic defiance of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” the rebelliousness of Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” the passionate romance of Neil Finn’s “Throw Your Arms Around Me,” performed as a duet with Liam. (Townshend’s “Love Reign O’er Me” was conspicuously absent, but the Who giant’s sense of melody and guitar playing, along with Finn’s chord structuring, is evident in virtually all of the “Into the Wild” songs.)
It was, in subtler than suspected ways, a tour de force - an opportunity for Vedder, in that distinctive, deeply resonant baritone of his, to open up about himself and his outlook on life without ever getting too heavy-handed about it. The surfer may sing “Masters of War” with as much venom as anyone who has ever tried, but for all his outspokenness, his journey remains an inward progression. Fix this crazy world, yes, he seems to say - but find yourself first.
Liam Finn, justifiably garnering acclaim for his do-it-yourself debut (“I’ll Be Lightning”) and his one-man-band performances, was an ideal opener and assistant to Vedder on “Wild” stuff like “Society” and “Hard Sun.” But for all his obvious instrumental talent and skill at generating loops to conjure a bigger sound, there was something about his set that left me wanting.
Once the New Zealander layered on all the parts and made space for accompanist Eliza Jane Barnes, many of his songs were invigorating - yet the building process can be laborious to watch again and again. As grew to be the case with Jack White, I’m already longing to see what Finn may someday do with a proper band behind him.
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