Pearl Jam: 19 July 2013 – Chicago

Pearl Jam

“OK,” she says fervidly, as she quickly pulls her iPhone away from her ear. “My husband says they’re all out of posters at the Clark St. line, but they have a few Ames. Bros. posters left at the left field stand.”

Those huddled around her in the blazing mid-afternoon Chicago heat act without regard, pulling out their wallets and cell phones to make the necessary arrangements. I’ve already been standing in this merchandise line for four hours now, having come straight from the airport after arriving in Chicago from Toronto on the first flight out. Though merchandise tables have been open for two days, everyone around me exudes a fervent dedication towards getting their hands on that one elusive t-shirt, collectable package of Pearl Jam trading cards (designed specifically for this event), or in this case, one of the four unique poster designs. I’ve only known this woman from Tri-Cities, Washington for a few hours, but we’ve formed a strong enough connection for me to fork over a $50 bill before she runs off to find her husband and, I pray to the merch gods, a poster sporting a bourgeois-looking purple gorilla. Though I have to keep reminding myself that the concert I flew in for is still happening that evening regardless of any merchandise quandaries, I know the whole event won’t be considered a total success unless I get my hands on one of those posters. And as I look back behind me and see a line-up of easily 200 others, I know I’m not alone.

For an oblivious onlooker on Friday morning outside Wrigley Field, it would have been safe to assume that the hundreds, if not thousands, of fans lining up were waiting for access to the hallowed grounds. But of course, when it comes to Pearl Jam and their legions of fans, those on the outside often fail to comprehend the community that’s been created throughout the band’s 23 years playing together.

One does not simply attend a Pearl Jam concert. While the actual performance itself usually ranges between a weighty two-and-a-half to three hours long, the entire event is a physically and mentally demanding process. When Pearl Jam rolls into town, the dedication of fans is often tested. By the time Eddie Vedder calls out to “Keelie” for the house lights (Kille Knobel, Pearl Jam’s resident lighting technician) on one of their handful of set closers, affirmation is almost always granted. Being present in the company of Pearl Jam isn’t enough, and the energy exchanged between fans and the band is only part of the equation. For Pearl Jam in 2013, a stark reality now dictates their entire existence: so ardent, loyal, and overpowering is their fan base that they function only because of that fan base. Once the most discussed band in rock music, Pearl Jam has carved a path that is rewarding but extremely exclusive.

Their music, at least when performed live, now holds a near-religious importance for fans, as was displayed at their one-off performance at Wrigley Field, one of only three concerts they have scheduled this summer and easily one of the most hyped in the band’s existence. And yet, there is a flipside: the “with us or against us” mentality that haunts Pearl Jam and its fans has manifested itself in a brick wall. If you’re on the inside, each show is a call to arms. From the outside, that very ardor is intimidating enough to turn one off to the band and anything they’ve released post-Ten, including their newest single, “Mind Your Manners”, from their tenth studio LP, Lightning Bolt.

Five hours after first arriving in the line for merchandise, I eventually find the woman from Tri-Cities and she delivers my poster. Other merchandise lines are picked over, but I manage to get my hands on a few stickers and a t-shirt. A weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The hype and expectations for the evening’s show now at a fever pitch, I can finally turn my focus to the music. It is, of course, the focal point of the day. With only a few black XL t-shirts hanging on the racks and swarms of fans sporting deep red sunburns, I retire to a nearby room, unaware of what the evening will hold. Either way, I’m a part of it and can document the entire event with an array of only mildly overpriced merchandise, which is more than many others can say.

* * *

When it comes to Pearl Jam, the music matters. Largely forgotten by modern critics and bloggers, it is their deep back catalogue, full of b-sides, covers, and one-off rarities, that engrosses fans. Intense personal connections are formed with each of the songs. Fans flock to the concerts, often taking in entire legs of tours in the hopes of hearing “that song” (every fan will have one) and screaming loud enough to achieve their own personal transcendence. These fans can attend in large groups, sure. But each and every fan hunkers down into a zone so focused and intimate that not much can be shared.

It’s a scary proposal. Somehow, the band and its fans have made it work. When the lights go down and the band comes onstage, enough endorphins are released by fans to make their love communal. And it becomes a powerful force, even something beautiful. What the fans at Wrigley Field didn’t know coming into the show was how difficult it would be to maintain this love of five (or sometimes six) people playing stage. Wrigley Field proved to be the ultimate test of strength for fans.

Michael Roffman and Matt Melis, in their excellent examination of the evening at Consequence of Sound, asserted that it was the kind of evening where “you learned to expect the unexpected.” Though a large portion of the evening was out of the band’s control, the group ultimately kept its two priorities front and center: the fans, who were rewarded for their dedication, and the music, which according to respected Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis took a backseat at a prominent (and much blogged about) festival taking place that same weekend in Chicago.

* * *

Around 8:15, the band took the stage. Vedder looked misty-eyed as he held his arms out wide, taking in every moment of a gig you could argue he was destined to play. A lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, Pearl Jam took its place among the others who’ve graced Wrigley Field (though Pearl Jam sold out the venue more quickly than anyone else has ever done). Some of the band’s more poignant numbers dropped early enough in the set, including “Nothingman”, “Present Tense”, and “Hold On”, that the emotion seemed palpable enough to keep the air thick.

Or, so a romantic might have believed (and I refuse to believe the majority of Pearl Jam fans are NOT romantics). The few level-headed fans in attendance knew better: an impending storm was making its way towards Wrigley Field. When the first flashes of lightning emerged behind the stage during “Come Back”, members of Pearl Jam’s crew began scurrying onstage. Rumours began to fly: we were headed for an early intermission, just as the band had found its footing.

Only seven songs in, Vedder delivered the news no one wanted to hear: “We’ve got to work together. You trust me on this? We know that in a half hour something heavy’s going to hit. We want you to take the half hour to move out. It should only last half an hour. And then this shit is back on.”

Spirits were still high as most believed that it would only take half an hour or so to see their band again. But as half an hour turned into an hour and an hour turned into two (with beer seemingly nowhere to be found), many huddled in the outfield concourse wondered: would the band even be able to return for a full set as promised? Was this whole trip (I didn’t meet one fan actually from Chicago) worth it? Why were the gods punishing us?

Such is how rabid fans deal with events beyond their control. It was hard to rationalize, especially with everyone coated in a thick layer of sweat.

Pearl Jam stated on its Twitter account during the delay that the group intended to play a full set that night, but news that both Bjork and Phish had now cancelled their sets in Chicago didn’t lighten the mood whatsoever.

Eventually, around 11:30 PM, fans were allowed back onto Wrigley Field. There was work to be done, and many wondered if the high spirits could return. Doubting the band’s ability to salvage the evening was understandable. When the band re-emerged, with Vedder proclaiming, “You’re back. This is exciting. It’s great to be back,” the tides effectively turned. And Pearl Jam cemented its legacy.

Donning a Chicago Cubs jersey, Vedder wore his heart on his sleeve and warmed the crowd with a spirited “All The Way”, his acoustic love letter to the Cubs and the ups and downs that fans of the team experience. It was fitting, considering the ups and downs that Pearl Jam’s faithful had experienced. “We are not fair-weather but foul-weather fans / Like brothers in arms in the streets and the stands,” he sang, before welcoming Cubs legend Ernie Banks (who originally inspired the song) onstage.

The floodgates now opened — the band pummelled fans with the next five tracks, unleashing an energy that, even by Pearl Jam standards, was a sight to behold. “Do The Evolution” featured Stone Gossard’s riff sounding equal parts crunchy and apocalyptic and “Corduroy” grew to great new heights. Like caged lions, the band bounced around the stage while still maintaining the synergy that’s become its calling card.

Many bands are capable of putting on outstanding and engulfing live sets. Some, maybe even on their best days, can outdo Pearl Jam. Constantly doing justice to the entire back catalogue throughout every tour and in turn paying respect to fans who have consistently shown their allegiance will have a profound effect on how Pearl Jam is ultimately remembered. Not impervious to how the rapid turnover of digital music has shortened the average listener’s attention span (the band’s last two lead singles are three minute firecrackers), Pearl Jam nonetheless remains a traditionalist group, respecting live music as a life-altering event. And it may be the last of its kind. By returning after a two and a half hour rain delay and rewarding fans with a two and a half hour set, the band acknowledged that it remains in existence because of the devotion the fans have maintained.

When weather plays a factor in concerts, most people afterwards wonder about “what could’ve been.” And yes, Pearl Jam’s set list was supposed to be a behemoth. But instead, most left with the knowledge that while a marathon set would’ve been memorable, it wouldn’t have necessarily been special. Long sets are nothing out of the ordinary for this band. Understanding the innate needs of the fans and playing until 2 AM is by contrast, very special.

You could pick and choose your own highlights: Mike McCready (arguably the star of the show) playing a commanding “Even Flow” solo entirely behind his head, hearing two new songs for the first time (the bouncy “Lightning Bolt” and the touching “Future Days”), or the raging, nine-minute version of “Porch”. The band went above and beyond the call of duty. Tributes to the past were paid, in the form of a moving “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” cover, and Vedder providing a heartfelt thank you to the other members of the band for taking a chance on him. Once-in-a-lifetime moments were delivered, such as Vedder playing the rarely heard “Bugs” alone on the accordion.

It was as the band wound down “Faithfull”, however, that many found the reason for making the pilgrimage. Vedder spoke of those fans that had been hanging around Wrigley Field for the past few days in anticipation of the concert. Unrequited love is one of the emotions dedicated Pearl Jam fans experience. So overpowering is the collective emotion of these fans that is can be tough for a band of Pearl Jam’s stature to see and appreciate each fan as an individual. Friday evening at Wrigley allowed Vedder a chance to do just that.

“So it makes me think about all the people that’ve been around Wrigley Field in the last couple days,” said Vedder. “Waiting in line, hanging out, commiserating, communicating and being part of this community. To see you hanging out together and coming to this place to see and experience this means a lot to us. And I know we’re just a band, but what you do, you turn regular music and a regular group, because of you, into something beautiful. And we just want to thank you.”

There was no shortage of emotion involved in the Wrigley Field marathon. What will ultimately be taken away is not how well the band performed or how well it responded to adversity (though the group deserves passes with flying colours on both counts). The band stood on solid ground, finally cementing a bond between band and fan that had been brewing for many years now. If and when the band does receive its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it should be on the sustaining community the group has built, and recognition should be paid to how rare a thing that actually is. Pearl Jam’s 2013 Wrigley Field show wasn’t perfect, but then again, beauty rarely is.