11 Sep 2011: Air Canada Centre Toronto
Pearl Jam’s fans are a steadfast and hardy bunch. One week after the band’s faithful gathered in Wisconsin for the band’s twentieth anniversary blowout, they found another special reason to gather. This time it was a bit further north of the border where Toronto’s International Film Festival held the premiere of a film about the band’s twenty year history. Pearl Jam took the opportunity to set forth on a tour of the provinces remaining in town for a two-night stand at the Air Canada Centre. Anticipation was high amongst the 20,000 fans (each night) for possible special guests, as U2, Neil Young and Chris Cornell had been in town as well.
The band had director Cameron Crowe to thank for compiling all their memories from the first twenty years and gathering them into the film. On stage, Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s outspoken frontman, recognized this as a celebration of the completion of the first half of a metaphorical ‘Pearl Jam record’ and as a turning point; a new era for the band. (Vedder wondered out loud “what the last song on side B is gonna be”).
Clearly fueled by the achievement of this monumental milestone, Pearl Jam’s nearly two and a half hour performance proved that they are riding high amongst the waves. It was easily one of the most engaging sets I’ve seen by the band, as they engaged the audience with near endless energy, hardly ever pausing to chat. ( Full disclosure: by a quick count this was my 19th PJ performance). PJ opened with an early track (from 1995), the stirring “Long Road” from Merkinball with the lights set dimly behind them only indicating their silhouettes.
The darkened stage transformed quickly as the band burst aggressively into the punk social critique “Do the Evolution”. When Vedder sang, “Theres my church / I sing in the choir”, much of the the audience cast their arms towards the sky (ok, ceiling)—a clear way to recognize the Pearl Jam devotees in the audience. It was probably most of them. Notable songs performed that were little surprise to the legion included some of the band’s up tempo hits: reassuring “The Fixer”, the frantic “Porch”, and the timeless “Alive” and “Once”. On the flipside, notable down tempo tracks, showing Pearl Jam’s versatility, included “Daughter” and “Betterman”, each extended with tags and the latter beginning with a crowd sing-along, plus the downtrodden “Nothingman” and the tender “Just Breathe”.
Yet even the most experienced swimmer needs to be wary of an undertow in the ocean. It’s hard to prepare for Pearl Jam since their sets often yield a few surprises. The first surprise was a song that oddly was not performed. Despite debuting only a few days earlier, the new song “Olé” was not played (though I could swear I saw it written on the setlist). But the band turned the clock far back, paying tribute to their roots, and Andrew Wood, with a passionate performance of “Crown of Thorns” (using “Chloe Dancer” as an intro) after the second break, both songs by Mother Love Bone, essentially the ancestor of PJ. They expanded Vedder’s solo effort “Setting Forth”, completed the ‘Man Trilogy’ with “Leatherman” and played one of my No Code favorites, “Off He Goes”.
But they had held out their biggest surprise for the epic finale, a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”. Midway into the song, a white hat appeared stage left. Uncle Young, with 51 years of music under his belt and a guitar from Mike McCready in his hands, arrived to give an extra infusion of vitality; the band hammered their guitars and extended the rockin’ to over eleven minutes. When it was over, the audience seemed like they would applaud forever. It almost goes without saying, but its undeniable, Pearl Jam are great performers. And they continue to thrive because they have undeniably great fans.
01. Long Road
02. Do the Evolution
04. Got Some
06. Nothing As It Seems
07. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
08. Setting Forth
09. Not For You/Modern Girl-(Sleater Kinney)
10. Given to Fly
11. Just Breathe
12. Off He Goes
13. Daughter/It’s OK-(Cole)
16. Unthought Known
17. The Fixer
20. Betterman/Save It for Later-(Charley, Cox, Morton, Steele, Wakeling)
24. Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns-(Wood, Mother Love Bone)
26. Rockin’ in the Free World w/Neil Young-(Young)