Pearl Jam’s back to back nights in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Thursday May 20th and Friday the 21st were their last stop in North America before a summer in Europe. And while suggesting both were rocking examples of Pearl Jam’s high standards is an easy comparison, the challenge would be contrasting them to convince you that Friday’s show was better. One measure might be the unique event poster: Thursday’s Jeff Soto design was easy to pick up around 6:00 pm while crowds became distraught in hopes of finding Friday’s Ames Bros design in the same place by 5:30 pm. If the openers are a factor for some, though I missed both, Thursday had the Black Keys and Friday had Band of Horses.
On Thursday, Eddie Vedder, reminiscing about the venue’s history, recalled how the arena’s floor shook during their previous Garden shows (24 June 2008). He encouraged the audience to demonstrate the same energy and soon they did; with the slow starting “Unthought Known” going into full gear and then heavier rock of “Do the Evolution” creating seismic shifts amongst the sections. But this was near the end of the first set. On Friday, Vedder proclaimed “I feel it” during the first song “Corduroy”, never looking back as he led a four-guitar assault on the audience with bandmates Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Mike McCready. Matt Cameron and Boom Gaspar remained behind their drums and keyboards/organs respectively. Maybe it was just because Friday opened with a stronger song that I am swayed to say Friday’s performance topped Thursday’s. But the band sustained the energy and the crowd fed on it. Feelings of proud accomplishment arose when, singing along to “Nothingman” and later “Betterman”, Vedder told the arena how good it felt.
One of the positive aspects of seeing Pearl Jam frequently is the diversity of their sets; no surprise with nearly 20 years of history, nine full length albums and dozens of other singles worth of music. Thursday night featured the powerful “State of Love and Trust” and a dazzling version of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me”, with the lights spiraling and dousing the crowd. Another aspect would be the band’s respect for other artists. Vedder asked the crowd to wish Pete Townshend a happy birthday (recorded for their official bootlegs) and dedicated “I Believe in Miracles” to Joey Ramone, as well as to individuals of all walks of life, he praised a father suffering from lymphoma for standing strong and coming to the show.
But Friday was another show for “the serious collectors” as Vedder said. Pearl Jam played “Black Red Yellow”, which hadn’t been heard live since 2005, and a modified version of “Lukin”, more suited to the slower accompaniment by a string quartet. There were also a few connections made to last Halloween’s tearing down the Spectrum show (though it remains a hard night to beat). “Sweet Lew” was the encore, supposedly a one-off before, with Ament handling the vocals while Vedder stood aside dribbling a basketball. And they shared the same closer, “Yellow Ledbetter” with McCready tagging the “Star-Spangled Banner” as a coda, though this time his shirt remained on. But on Friday, Ben Bridwell joined the band to reprise Chris Cornell’s lyrics on Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”, which was met with great appreciation.
A few criticisms must be made, however good the performances were. Unfortunately, no screens were up to help the audience at the furthest corners of the show see what was going on nor were there any graphics or banners like previous shows. Secondly, despite having sold seats behind the stage, Pearl Jam gave only a little attention to those back there even if they were just happy to be in attendance. Both are worth reconsidering especially because fans want to see what’s going on, which bottle of wine Vedder’s drinking from, what poster or shirt he’s been given from a fan or even the different t-shirts worn throughout the night.
Third, no fault of the band’s own, there is nothing to stop the fans from singing along to every verse, from even the rarest of songs, which interferes with the already difficult acoustics in such a massive arena. Finally, and this might be nitpicking, is the lack of any real sense of an encore. Fans are accustomed to a select few songs as indicative of the end, but despite an already long, unforgiving performance, the band can surely mix it up and throw in a surprise. There is a reason people start to leave during “Ledbetter”.
There is little to change a fan’s opinion of any Pearl Jam show they’ve seen and without argument both MSG shows were strong performances and have their own unique highlights. However, Vedder provided Friday’s audience with the more delicious Pearl Jam banquet and a fine way to close their current US tour.
MSG 1 Setlist:
1st Set: Sometimes, Breakerfall, Last Exit, Animal, The Fixer, Severed Hand, Small Town, I Am Mine, Comatose, Force Of Nature, Even Flow, Low Light, Down, I Got ID, Army Reserve (dedicated to Lt. Colonel John McDonough), Insignificance, Unthought Known, Do The Evolution
2nd Set: The End (w/ string quartet), Lukin (w/ string quartet), Just Breathe (w/ string quartet), You Are, Love, Reign O’er Me (The Who, Ed has crowd wish Pete Townshend a happy birthday), State of Love and Trust, Once, Porch
3rd Set: Jeremy, Leash, Mankind, Crazy Mary (Victoria Williams), I Believe In Miracles (Ramones, dedicated to Joey Ramone), Alive, Indifference
MSG 2 Setlist:
1st Set: Corduroy, Hail Hail, Do The Evolution, World Wide Suicide, Got Some, Breath, Nothing Man, I’m Open (dedicated to Howard Zinn), Unthought Known, Grievance, Amongst The Waves, Present Tense, Not For You/Modern Girl (Sleater-Kinney), Push Me Pull Me, Rats, Daughter/WMA, The Fixer, Why Go
2nd Set: The End (w/ string quartet), Just Breathe (w/ string quartet), Lukin II (w/ string quartet), Black Red Yellow, Sweet Lew, Given To Fly, Spin The Black Circle, Rearviewmirror
3rd Set: Wasted Reprise, Better Man/Save It For Later (The English Beat), Black, The Real Me (The Who), Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog, w/ Ben Bridwell), Alive, Kick Out The Jams (MC5), Yellow Ledbetter/Star Spangled Banner