Little new can be said about Pearl Jam. Over the past three decades, with their cross-generational influence and consistent global touring, including countless festival appearances, few music lovers haven’t seen them live. On 21 June in Berlin a good portion of the 22,000 fans congregating at the Waldbühne is wearing merchandise from the band’s many previous tours, some even decades old, like relics. Case in point: a man name Keith is saluted for reportedly attending his 50th Pearl Jam concert there and then.
If you know anything about the sole (literal) survivors of Seattle’s “grunge” scene (apostrophes because “grunge” as a well-defined phenomenon never really existed and was only defined by locality and different bands’ use of guitars) – and chances are you do – you know this isn’t surprising. One of the very rare mainstream bands to relentlessly poke at the hidden and often repressed inner thoughts of the broadest set of characters and fates, they torpedoed themselves to superstardom with their very first single, “Alive”, and have stayed on top since. Combining vivid lyrics and intense singing with colossal guitar hooks and virtuoso progression reminiscent of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, Pearl Jam have always been the thinking rock fan’s all-inclusive.
The fact that the mean age of the crowd is above 40 speaks to this longevity. Pearl Jam came to prominence during the 1990s, a globally strange time during which the innocence of assuming economic and social prosperity would continue, ended. The many teenagers to whom glam rock bands of the ’80s ceased to speak, turned to the tender and poetic, yet viciously insightful Eddie Vedder – and have been sticking with his band since. The “times”, unfortunately, have only changed for the worse since, but the sense of security one gets by clinging to a voice of the generation hasn’t. If anything, it’s gotten stronger.
The majority of the fans who will swarm the amphitheater arrive hours before the show to secure the best spots. Our friends rush to appear two hours before the show only to find everything but the very top tier of seats fully packed. People have traveled from all over the world to be there; the band’s global fan club (Ten Club) even gets a special, and early, access point. The standing area is so full that a cloud of dust 50 feet high obscures the stage. I brazenly disregard the seating protocols and occupy the lowest stone step in the second sitting tier. It’s a dead-end anyway, as a stone wall and a chain of security staff separate us from the standing area and prime seats. The crowd is so large and pushy that anyone leaving the first tier receives a hand stamp of literal approval to be able to return to that area. The rest are angrily turned away and must head toward the nosebleed seats.
Though the show hasn’t even begun, there’s frenzy all over the stands. A high percentage of people around me are either smoking overstuffed blunts or are already high. Everyone is chugging pints of beer, many pushing by to prop themselves on the stone wall and shout after the beer boys to bring the beers to their parched mouths. Some half a dozen middle-aged Hispanic men are having the time of their lives, chanting verses I don’t recognize in Spanish.
A few minutes before 8 pm, Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, Stone Gossard, Mike McReady, and Eddie Vedder run onto the stage, joined by Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers fame, who is now a touring member and a great guitar addition to Pearl Jam’s (and Eddie Vedder’s solo) live performances. With no introduction, they dive straight into Ten’s “Why Go” as everyone present shrieks. “Why go home?” screams Vedder again and again while a gigantic moshpit starts and doesn’t stop until the very end of the show.
I watch closely as everyone screams the lyrics in unison; not even the inebriated folks miss a beat. A couple in their 50s run down the steps to the stone wall in front of me. The man leans over, scanning the perimeter. I thought he was all too keen to call out for one of the beer boys, but I’m mistaken. The second the security staff looked away, he jumped over the wall, landing cozily on his feet despite the height of about seven feet. The woman is reluctant to follow, but dozens around me cheer her on, and her companion pulls her down swiftly. As my stand applauds the couple, they instantly run toward the stage, screaming to the lyrics as they dash. More enthusiasts follow. Such is the devotion to this band.
Always in a chatty mood, Vedder understands this bond between the band and the audience well, so he keeps talking throughout the night and the thematic scope is astounding. “I was at home, watching this art channel, and there was a concert played at this stage… Some guys on violins wearing latex… It was ridiculous, but I watched it until the end because I was interested in seeing the stage.” Though we have no idea who the “guys” were, what’s even less clear is why Vedder would bother to watch a concert just to see Waldbühne when Pearl Jam played there in 2018, the last time they toured Europe anyhow. It’s a hilarious sketch nevertheless and Vedder chuckles and takes a swig from a wine bottle he brought on stage. “¡Tan poquito!” (“so little”), laugh the Hispanic men next to me. They would repeat this every time Vedder drank, which was plenty.
Throughout the night we get an assortment of tunes from eight releases, including two covers – “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones (who had been announced to play the same venue in August that same day) and “I Believe in Miracles”, by the Ramones. The latter is a touching ode to a terminally ill fan, Roland Mandel, who, in a devastating turn of events, had to campaign online just to attend the show. A healthy man when he bought the ticket to the show in 2019, Mandel was diagnosed with ALS during the pandemic. Now in a wheelchair, he needed a disabled seat, and all 12 of those were sold out. After a social media campaign to have Mandel see his favorite band after all, Vedder & co. invited him to watch the show from the side of the stage.
Poignant stories of life continue, though with bizarre interjections. As Vedder narrates a tale of two fans celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary after the husband won the wife over despite her “love” for Vedder, he slides into a vignette about… scrotums. “I’ve been in a band with Jeff for 30 years and I’ve never seen his balls… Stone must have,” chortles Vedder among many swigs from the bottle. The crowd laughs at his every word.
Between Vedder’s countless stories, the set continues. Expectedly, songs off Ten (1991) and Gigaton (2020), their latest, excellent release, dominate the night, with a few classics from Yield (1998) (“Do the Evolution”), Vitalogy (1994) (“Corduroy”), and Vs (1993) (“Elderly Woman…”) thrown into the mix just to spice things up. It’s a somewhat unusual setlist, as it features far less barking than normal. Gentler songs take the place of the brisk toxicity of the anthems such as “Go”, “Rearviewmirror”, “Given to Fly”, or “Once”. This doesn’t seem to bother the audience, though, as the singing, moshing, and crowd surfing never stops, regardless of the age of those in attendance. This juvenile behavior is indicative of the nostalgia Pearl Jam’s shows bring to the many adults who have reasons, whatever it may be, to remember their formative years with longing. While Pearl Jam is a wholly mature group and they cover a wide range of topics in their music, its fans often regress into adolescence before their idols.
Case in point: a crowd surfer for whom Vedder interrupts “Nothingman”. “Hey, pull him down, no more surfing on top… Hey, dude, this is a romantic… um, this is not the song. I like your shirt, though, but we’ve got some more songs where you’d want to do the surfing thing… Just keep your feet on the ground… Jump in space, up and down, do the whole thing. There’re some young people and women in the front… If you wanna surf, go that way,” smiles Vedder as he points away from the stage. He then jumps instantly and perfectly into the vocally demanding chorus like he wasn’t waving his finger at a petulant crowd member a second ago.
“The Many Tales of Eddie” conclude with a typically political rant, this time about the perceived ineptitude of global politicians in their fight against the pandemic. “We had to postpone our tour in 2020, thought things would get better by summer. They got worse and politicians only worked for their own benefit… anyway, great to be here.” As always, rapturous applause ensues.
The main part of the show ends with a customarily extended version of “Porch”. During the guitar part, Vedder walks on both sides of the stage. One woman puts up a sign reading “Thank you for who I am”. Wow. Pearl Jam’s legacy is so substantial that people thank them for their very identities. Seeing this makes us very thankful that the band made it this far and – better yet – stayed unproblematic throughout the years.
The four-song encore, starting with “Footsteps” and ending with “Alive” is sweet, but all too short relative to how long Pearl Jam concerts usually are. At exactly 10 pm the band bids the audience a quick goodbye, provoking wrathful curses for several minutes. Pearl Jam usually plays at least for two and a half hours and pretty much everyone in the audience felt robbed of the opportunity to enjoy a more comprehensive setlist. The organizers cited curfew as the reason for a shorter set, though it remains unclear why the band simply hadn’t started at 7:30 pm instead of 8 pm.
In any case, it was a good night. Pearl Jam is so good that the band’s very existence is synonymous with contemporary culture for so many. Their concerts are more than just great rock shows – for so many of their hoards of fans, they are sermons, a personal and spiritual occurrence that cleanses the soul of anything but one’s most intimate thoughts. Short setlist or not, seeing them live is always a rewarding experience. May they remain energetic and chatty for many more years to come.
The second leg of Pearl Jam’s North American tour 2022 will commence on 1 September in Quebec.