You should know you’re dealing with an expert. I’ve passed the point where I can remember how many Pearl Jam shows I’ve seen, but I do know that the number is in the double digits. This, despite the fact that A) Pearl Jam shows aren’t cheap (despite their best efforts); B) their tickets sell out rather quickly; and C) being a huge Pearl Jam fan is most certainly not cool. I’ve made my peace with that final point, because if Pearl Jam were a cool band, they’d be a fundamentally different band. A great deal of their appeal is based on their absolutely unstylish earnestness. Eddie Vedder has always wanted every disenfranchised kid on the planet to know that they had a champion in popular music. Rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard has always been willing to throw down huge, arena-ready riffs and lead guitarist Mike McCready has been playing the exact same bluesy leads since jump street. More astoundingly, with each passing concert over these two decades, the band seems to mean it more and more. No wonder most people find it insufferable, while a select few million absolutely adore it.
One of my favorite things that I’ve experienced again and again is finding huge Pearl Jam fans in the most unexpected places. You go to enough indie rock, underground hip-hop, and noise rock shows over the years, and you start to assume that you haven’t seen a real, dyed-in-the-wool Pearl Jam fan since the last time you went to one of their concerts. But believe me, there are Pearl Jam obsessives at Boredoms shows and LCD Soundsystem shows and Bonnie “Prince” Billy shows. It just takes us a few minutes to gather the courage to out ourselves. I shame-facedly asked Stereo Subversion editor Matt Conner to review this show in a mealy-mouthed e-mail, only to have him excitedly respond with the admission that he was seeing Pearl Jam six days after I was. One of my first experiences bonding with my girlfriend was when she found out about my love of Pearl Jam, and we spent the next hour geeking out over Yield and lambasting all of the so-called fans who dropped off after Vitalogy. We’re out there, and some of us are wearing Animal Collective tees.
So, how about that concert I was going to review, huh? My ultimate point with the previous paragraphs was to illustrate how pathological PJ’s fans are. Naturally, a concert review from an admitted obsessive is bound to be unreliable, and full of fawning prose about how life-changing this particular show was. I’ll tell you that I’ve been to better Pearl Jam shows, but I’ve also been much closer to the stage at Pearl Jam shows, and that probably influences my opinion as much as any other factor. Because really, Pearl Jam go to the wall with every show. Their reputation as one of the planet’s best live bands is more than well-deserved, and I’m pretty sure I can state that objectively. I’m not even sure I’m going to spend any time discussing opener Band of Horses, of whom I think the world.
Naturally, Vedder and Co.’s moves have grown a little less graceful over the years, but their playing is as passionate as ever. It’s especially ironic when you consider that the band’s most recent album, Backspacer, is so efficient and mechanical. Pearl Jam by-the-numbers. It’s not a knock on the album. In fact, I’m mostly happy to see that the band has learned that they can be a bit dispassionate and professional about songwriting without having it affect the quality of their work. And they seem proud of Backspacer. The show at Nationwide Arena in Columbus found them leaning on that album more than any other, though there was certainly a generous smattering of songs from every period of their careers. Only Riot Act got the shaft, though if any album were to be ignored…
But yeah, I’ve seen at least ten Pearl Jam shows by now. I’ve seen them open with “Oceans” and close with “Yellow Ledbetter”. I’ve seen them play Victoria Williams’ “Crazy Mary” with an awesome extended outro. I’ve seen Vedder insist that he needs another bottle of wine as a tacit admission to the crowd that they were going to be onstage for quite a while longer. The Backspacer songs were a new live experience for me, and lord knows it was a treat to hear their Vs.-era b-side “Alone,” but overall, this show was everything I expected. Absolutely great, but no better or worse than their average performance. At this point, there are going to have to be a lot more surprises for a Pearl Jam show to be absolutely transcendent for me (as it once was), but this is my musical comfort food (to plagiarize a concept from a recent AV Club feature article). It will always have a well-deserved place in my heart.