Naturally, Pearl Jam selections were the most called-for—shouts for “Footsteps” came every other minute, howled through the confines of the United Palace theater with the over-emoted slur of someone who’s had a skinful. But Eddie Vedder is unruffled, and despite every hoot and holler—and the fact that he could have just as easily opted for a set full of Pearl Jam songs—he let nothing shake his confidence as a solo performer and let nothing deviate from his presentation, which was far more ambitious than any old evening of stripped-down Pearl Jam.
Compared to a Pearl Jam show, this was (obviously) more elegant and (surprisingly) a more stilted affair. Surrounded by instruments and props, and performing in front of slightly pretentious backdrops—the first a street corner scene, the second what appeared to be the cargo hold of a ship, and the third outside a tent in front of a campfire—Vedder deviated little from the main set list he’s been using throughout the tour.
4 Aug 2008: The United Palace New York, NY
But it slowly became clear that the show was a construction, and a construction with purpose. Vedder based the performance around seven songs from his quietly intense soundtrack to the movie Into the Wild to paint an hour-and-a-half concert drawing on central themes of determination, regret, and wanderlust. Everything else in the show sprung from one of those wells. Theses included the handful of Pearl Jam selections that did make the cut (including a particularly potent “Around the Bend”), other solo material (“Man of the Hour” from Big Fish), and a range of covers that filled gaps, made statements, and effected transitions where his own songs could not.
The opening trio of songs, Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow”, Cat Stevens’ “Trouble”, and Pearl Jam’s “I Am Mine”, kicked things off with quiet intensity. The first song with its slightly unsettling “what am I doing here” sort of calm, the second tune more overtly passionate, but still relentlessly dark in its theme of suicide, and the third hiding sadness in its scorn and selfish empiricism. Later, when Vedder had finished a five-song suite of Wild songs, he turned to James Taylor’s “Millworker”, the hopeful, yet resigned narrator again suggesting a wandering, burdened mind. He followed this with Pearl Jam’s ukulele classic “Soon Forget”, which was along the same lines, though more omniscient—more broadly observant, almost aphorismic—in tone.
The home stretch of the set came with some much-needed levity via the ancient drinking song “I Used to Work in Chicago”, a few dorky bars of “Walk Hard”, from the movie of the same name, and the Lennon/McCartney number, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. (Vedder’s version has never done much for me—it’s bland and not particularly tender—but it was a nice moment of crowd-stoking to build up to the end of the set.)
All told, it was the first encore segment—six songs, no filler—where Vedder pushed the evening from inspired novelty to emotional catharsis. Bookending the proceedings with Pearl Jam’s “Wish List” and “Arc”, he moved from the cynical “Wish List” to Pete Townshend’s tenderhearted “Let My Love Open the Door”, to a pensive version of Jerry Hannan’s “Society” (where he was joined by support act Liam Finn), to the fiery and political “Masters of War”, riffing, with grunts, drawled phrases and bursts of anger, on Dylan’s anvil-subtle poetry.
Interestingly, the song that followed “Masters of War”, “No More”—originally written by Vedder for the 2007 documentary Body of War—was even more direct, but its indictments less-sneering. With lyrics that veer almost winsomely toward pleas, “No More” made for a more profound statement: A feeling of “pleaded with,” not “shouted at.” By this time, after about 90 minutes of music, nothing felt incongruous or patch-worked in the least—Vedder had achieved a cohesive flow and a trenchant narrative arc.
Much like his father Neil—front man of Crowded House and formerly Split Enz—Liam Finn knows how to get a lot of mileage out of handsomely crafted pop songs divested from their obvious Beatles lineage by nature of their slightly frayed edges.
The 25-year-old Finn’s opening set was a treat, leaning somewhat—though not deferentially—on an effects pedal and the work of his accompanist, harmony vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Eliza-Jane Barnes. Both Finn and Barnes would join Vedder for the night’s finale (a lilting take on Gordon Peterson’s “Hard Sun”), but their collaboration on “Society” 15 minutes earlier was even stronger. There, Finn strummed along as Vedder mined the drama from spare choruses, and then, when the time came, he added delicate harmony vocals, bringing everything into a sadly beautiful, heartfelt confluence.