Note from gratefulweb.com management: We sent Jake Bendrick on assignment on Oct 22, 2014 with simple instructions. 1) Complete your concert review no later than 11:30PM and turn it in directly. 2) Keep it to 1000 words. Rather than complying with our request he disappeared until late Sunday night at which point he returned to our office stinking of hydrogen peroxide, those rubber hot water bottles that people sometimes use for sore backs, and some kind of horrible Apple Candy Schnapps that supposedly came from Mexico. He turned in what he is calling a “review” that is over 5500 words long and has refused to edit a single word. He claims to have contributed this article at “great personal expense” and has threatened legal action if we edit “so much as a single goddamned comma, of which there are few, you dirty sonsofbitches.”
With that, and with our apologies, we submit to you this monstrosity concerning the Pearl Jam concert at Pepsi Center.
Oct 22, 2014, Pepsi Center, Denver CO – As Pearl Jam take the stage and settle into their seats for the acoustic portion of their first encore I’m transported if only for a moment back to April 3, 1994, when the rock and roll juggernaut from Seattle broadcasted their live performance from Atlanta’s Fox Theatre over national radio. I was able to pick it up on a crackly station called Z-Rock on the AM dial and yes I taped it on cassette and it was lo-fi due to the iffy reception but I didn’t care. One of the world’s greatest rock bands was actually sharing its live show to all who might listen… for free. It was quite a feat in pre-internet/podcast/live streaming/smartphone America, and as that raucous show steamrolled toward its conclusion a twenty nine year old Eddie Vedder began to reflect on what might be if we all managed to hold on and make it through the coming years. He was having fun with it. Snapping out staccato in that uniquely sonorous voice he stated, “twenty years from now we’ll be sitting on stools, you’ll be sitting on stools… hell we’ll all be sitting on stools.” Maybe half-joking but not really. There was something to it… belief. For such a simple statement it was a revelation for this Gen X kid. Our wave was cresting. After listening for years to our parents’ self-indulgent claims that the trials of their youth had altered the fabric of our country and changed the entire world while ours seemed doomed to some secondary and tepid afterthought to their greatness, something happened. Generation X came of age. We refused and regurgitated the canned corporate nonsense we’d been spoon fed for the better part of a decade and found something, several somethings, to call our own. We said fuck it to the fear mongers who would have us grow up knowing the bomb could drop any moment, that sex could kill us and that it would be ugly and slow, and that there was a hole in the sky and the oceans would melt and the bees were dying and there was nothing we could do because we were meaningless and hopeless and we had shitty “whatever” attitudes. The Boomers might have also been called Gen Rolling Stone and like that tired old rag they clung mercilessly to their heroes of yore, to their Stones and their Beatles and their Dylans as the unreachable bar by which all else would be measured and yet somehow it was us, kids our age who had been hooked on music for what seemed our whole lives who began to make our own and when we did we shook the foundations beneath those tired institutions and now we were riding the wave; culturally, politically, artistically, and musically and then Eddie uttered those words , so simple and yet they meant so much. None of us had stopped to consider that any of this might last...
Fast forward to tonight. October 22, 2014. The younger me and the older me merged if for only this single moment as I gaze out at the stage and Eddie’s twenty-nine-old-words are there like an eerie but familiar old haunt and I look up and around – some two hours since the opening chords of Release resounded through an azure haze as surreal an electric as the crowd and the band – and Pearl Jam are seated comfortably on their stools but every other soul in this building is standing and none of them will sit or even consider it for another ninety minutes.
But we’re ahead of ourselves now, aren’t we? Inhale. Deep. This one needs to breathe a little. Let’s go back to the beginning.
7:04PM, Pepsi Center Parking Lot: Mike is feeling a little pressure. I am excited. On assignment. In the driver’s seat. Mr. Moran, the head honcho of gratefulweb.net, is riding shotgun and is concealing his strain quite well. We had decided to eat at Chipotle before fighting the traffic from Boulder to Denver. Ever the cool customer, he’d brushed my concerns aside when I’d offered to eat in the car. But traffic on 36 has nearly ruined a night barely started. Mike is required to meet with other press photogs at 7:20PM at a checkpoint where he will be escorted into the pit. Now we face the real danger of tardiness. It would be difficult to talk our way in. The instructions from the Pearl Jam crew were explicit.
Even so I’m astounded. What other world-class rock band on the face of planet earth would cut press tickets for a photographer and reviewer from a DIY online fanzine at a show sold out all the way to the rafters? I remark that we can probably count all of them on one hand. Maybe one finger. Mike nods tersely.
Our car is one of many stacked in an endless line seeking paid parking. To the right yawns the cobalt and charcoal promise of a jam-packed $15 lot and a gridlock of taillights awaiting instruction where to park but as luck would have it another opening reveals itself on our left. Valet parking for $30. It seems comical. Who would think that two 40-something kids like us would ever consider it? I’ve never valet parked in my life. I have no idea how it works. I roll down the window on the Camry Hybrid and ask the attendant if we can really park there and he smiles wryly and waves us through. I ask the man who awaits us what to do with the keys and after he explains I ask if I should tip him. He smiles and nods and refrains from rolling his eyes.
We’re out and walking briskly and in my deep brain I’m hoping beyond all hope that I won’t lose my parking ticket over the course of the next… two hours? Two and a half? Surely that is all it will be.
7:20PM, Will Call: The tickets are there as promised. I snatch the envelope from the slot in the Will Call window and quickly call Mike. We’ve gone the “divide and conquer” route. He is at the checkpoint in hopes that the road crew won’t leave him behind. I let him know I have the tix and make quickly to where he is waiting. The relief in his voice is palpable. I find him, hand over his pass, and am whisked into the fray of a thousand, thousand joyous souls pouring in through the northeast entrance. Mike hangs back and prepares for the pit.
I’ve seen the Pepsi Center packed for sporting events but this is different. The age diversity is noticeable. Generation X is out in force and for once it seems we forgot to trade in our corduroys and t-shirts and flannel for more expensive designer outdoorsy and yuppified versions of the same. We bear the same tattoos and maybe some new face jewelry. But Gen Y is here too and Boomers as well. It is as if this happening has spanned all of it, a thread running through the best of all of us. The stairwells and walls buzz with it, something you can’t quite define but it is tangible and a current runs through it. Like the lightning bolts which grace every other shirt around me on the escalators.
I check my ticket. Section 148. Row 5. Seat 15. We’re not Rolling Stone Magazine or even the Denver Post and I figure we’ll be relegated to the nosebleeds but that’s okay. Energy builds as the crowd files in. A woman my age rumbles past rocking a fifties style shift dress that Kathleen Hanna might have proudly worn in 1989.
8:00PM, Seated in Section 148, Row 5, Seat 15: I’m astounded. I text Mike and it’s a simple one. “Incredible seats!” Team Pearl Jam has shown us the white glove treatment. I’m sitting what I believe is just west of center court, five rows off the deck. The stage is to my right, fewer than 50 feet away, eye level. I try to make out Mike’s position amid the gathering mass in GA before me.
A woman behind me compliments the Sub Pop label on the back of my shirt. I stand and proudly display the white-lettered “Loser” emblazoned across the front. Old school. A throwback to the days when Stone and Jeff and Mark and Steve defined a new sound in Green River. To the great split that would sow the seeds of Mudhoney and Love Bone and eventually Pearl Jam.
Conversation all around me. I mingle with Ten Club members who are equally pleased with their seats. The six friends behind me are veterans. They recount other shows and previous pleasant surprises. A sense of reverence permeates the discussion.
The road crew runs through sound check. Someone strums the opening riff of Severed Hand. Music playing in the background on the PA. I blink and smile in surprise as Courtney Barnett’s Avant Gardner filters through the mesh of thousands of excited voices.
8:12PM, It Begins: The lights dim and immediately a roar erupts up through the bones of this building and I find myself doubting it has been this loud since the Nuggets were last relevant and winning playoff games. A grey-haired woman in a tie dyed dress at the back of GA begins to sway as Matt Cameron ascends to the drum kit. The rest of the band joins him. Release rises up out of them. The sound is great. I hate arena shows and the disconnect between audience and band but there is intimacy here. The stage is low and very little separates Stone and Jeff and Mike and Boom and Matt and Ed from the roiling mass of bodies that sway to the ethereal majesty of the opener. An undeniably unique and immediately identifiable baritone fills up all the empty space. Every other voice in the place joins in and renders out the song word for word. They nail it. All of them.
Lowlight is next. You can feel it building toward something, this mellow but powerful start. The REM-esque offering from Yield seems to enhance the glow from light spheres hovering around the stage and Stone Gossard’s guitar sound filters up through a metallic sculpture that looks like scrap metal and driftwood and heavy thick shocks of rope combined in the shape of a massive bird with its wings spread high above the band. LED’s throughout the wreck illume the thing as it rises up and lowers and spreads its wings and then rests.
After Lowlight comes Elderly Woman. A beautiful trifecta. The crowd singing every word. As if in a trance. As if they have waited, all of them, for this moment.
8:30ishPM, Things pick up: Time begins to lose meaning. I haven’t time-stamped any of this. Last Exit is next. Matt’s kit crackles and booms. He propels the band. Mike texts me: “They sound great!” I am recording the set list via “Notes” on my iPhone and I am worried I’ll lose them because I have no idea if what I enter is saving so I decide against replying because I’m smartphone-challenged and don’t want to lose what I have.
Why Go thunders and the floor is a chaotic mass. Some organism risen from oceans that once shored somewhere in these parts. When the crowd’s cries of “Why go home?” fade and Vedder announces the title track of their most recent album I begin to understand why the band has consistently stated that the songs on Lightning Bolt were meant to be played live. This rendering of LB crashes against the crowd like waves eroding the shore. Vedder channels his inner-Daultrey and for the first time but certainly not the last I am struck not only by how well PJ’s lead singer’s voice has held up over the years but also the degree of difficulty he embraces in so many of their songs. Quite possibly the best song on Lightning bolt, the title track begins to reverberate through the building in shockwaves electric that will only grow stronger as the minutes and hours pass.
Then there is Mind Your Manners. Matt Cameron’s performance is such that all the members of Minor Threat, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedy’s would break out in gooseflesh spawned of some un-nameable dark thrill were they lucky enough to behold it. The rest of the band thrashes and bends and quakes in hope of keeping up.
Setting Forth is a nice surprise from the Into the Wild soundtrack. As they close it out to thunderous applause I worry only mildly that “EdVed” might be hitting the wine a little much and a little fast… not because he can’t handle it but because of the altitude. Many a sturdy drinker has met their match in this mile high thin air. He seems to acknowledge this at one point when commenting that the band intends to pace themselves since they’re at 5280 feet. Leatherman follows and there is something dark and even vicious about it but that is only prelude to Father’s Son. I enjoy this song when listening to Lightning Bolt. I’m floored by it live. There is a tension here. It is almost as if Vedder and Cameron are in different time signatures. Almost as if they’re missing but they’re not. Tension. Darkness.
Even Flow is next and now the crowd on the floor is pogoing like it’s 1992. Stone Gossard locked into that familiar and almost frumpy slow-mo groove that finds him reaching down into whatever place it is that pours out those endless ear-catching riffs. Stone is freaky cool. You could see him locked into a laptop coding iOS apps and it would seem like he belonged but then he plays that goddamned guitar and it gets you every time and that sound is there and that sound IS Pearl Jam. Under the lights Jeff rocks his bass. Grizzled and tough as hell and you almost think he looks like Tom Waits if he were transformed into a Terminator. But it is McCready who steals Even Flow and makes it his and the crowd knows it and they feed off him and by the time the song is over everyone is aware that this band is so much more than Eddie Vedder and it seems impossible that of all the humans on this planet and all the improbable events that would need to fall in place have actually happened and the six of them have found each other and somehow they are here, right now, on this stage, making rock and roll the likes of which so few can ever claim to have made. How can something like this happen? Each part great in and of itself and when combined the whole is difficult to fathom. Even better, when they roll into Ghost, we see them as infinitely human. Perhaps their most appealing trait. Vedder comes in too early on the second verse and then catches himself and then later forgets the words and ends the thing laughing and it is the most punk rock moment of the entire show and the people around me are confused by my exuberant applause but real rock and roll was never about perfection.
Present Tense is eerie and darkly beautiful. Plumes of legally purchased Colorado-grown marijuana rise up and meet the lights. Evolution screams and rages. McCready surprises and delights with his rendering of Van Halen’s Eruption. When he finishes the woman behind me remarks, “Oh my god, holy shit.” Yeah.
The hidden gem of their main set is Of the Earth. It’s as if this song is rooted deep in soil tilled long ago by Jimi Hendrix and it thunders and booms and then breaks in an interesting and energetic jam that rises up and mingles with some element of majesty before plunging deep back into the muck from whence it came. It has been written more than once that the band has attempted to publish this song on recent albums but hasn’t gotten it right in the studio just yet. As they finish up I find myself hoping they never will. There is no way to do justice to what happens when they play it live.
Given to Fly is next. Every voice in the place matching Vedder word for word and with each passing song they are emboldened and there are moments when even he becomes difficult to hear over the audience. Sirens brings us back to earth for a moment. Another song off Lightning Bolt that is so much better live. Stoney takes the mic for Don’t Gimme No Lip and it’s a riot on the floor that only intensifies during Lukin.
And then there is Porch. The final song of the main set. Somehow the energy ratchets higher. During the extended jam when a young EdVed would have been caught climbing lighting rigs or dangling from rafters or diving off of ledges into the crowd, the current version is all over the place. One moment pouring wine for the front row. The next sharing the mic with the crowd. At one point in the pit. Like his own ocean. Constant motion. Fathomless energy. Swerving slightly with the wine. McCready and Ament are swinging the light globes far out over the crowd and dodging them on the way back and the former converts his mic stand into a makeshift baseball bat and takes practice on his globe again and again until at last it shatters in a spray of glittering shards and then the band comes back as one to the final verse and Eddie is standing on the barrier and leaning out over a thicket of upraised arms and hands and they paw at him and he finds them back and squeezes one here, one there, reciprocation, a return to those moments so many years ago when crowd and band became indistinguishable and this is no longer an arena rock show. It is a communal experience. I find myself staring up and around at the masses stacked up as high as the seats go and not a single soul is still or seated or bored. Canned pandemonium. As if everyone has waited for this. One night to be the best of what all of us have at some point been. I notice Jeff Ament looking up and around with astonishment on his face.
9:30PM? I’ve lost track:
And we’re back where we started. The band seated and bathed in firelight ambience and the bird-thing above them seems wooden now, all warm and aglow and then Eddie sets the tone with a dissertation on his appreciation for those who would give their lives in the armed forces so that the rest of us might feel safe and when he asks that we applaud not only soldiers but the families who support them and requires of the crowd that this be the loudest cheering heard all night the masses are happy to oblige. His twenty-year-old-words echoing inside my head, emerged from memory, and we are here and there, the younger versions of ourselves and the current versions and we haven’t really changed all that much… They’re sitting on stools but we are not and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Context. Eddie’s statements about service men and women lend Future Days a new dimension. It is folksy and beautiful. Like Cat Stevens wringing a country song out of some hidden part of his soul. Sleight of Hand follows and fits the mood perfectly.
A moment of levity. Vedder states that if they have not yet created a smartphone app to light Colorado’s recently legalized marijuana then he suspects at least some in the crowd have lighters and that this would be the time.
As he speaks the rest of the band recedes into shadow and Ed is left alone amid a backdrop of blue against splashes of soft white and the warmth of lighters in the crowd. He strums the opening notes of John Lennon’s Imagine and a reverential hush descends until he begins singing and everyone joins in and for two minutes or barely more you can see it, the universal greatness of the greatest Beatle’s greatest song as it stretches out over the decades and strikes a chord with every generation and every walk of life and everyone believes every word that they sing and the power of art, of music, of rock and roll is here in the room with us, a glimpse of it, and it is as if we’ve actually captured moonlight or stardust and shared it around the room.
But, as if this moment were not enough, the rest of the band returns to top it. Is it at this point that Vedder references the people who inspired him and his band mates and the rest of us in the audience? I can’t recall. It all blends together at some point. Message and music and more than ten thousand heartbeats amalgam. He names Townsend and others and then Ian McKaye and for some reason I feel like a lone soul when I howl my approval at his mention.
And then their version of Pink Floyd’s Mother begins. Eddie’s voice laced with dusk and rough-hewn out of some unearthly timber and they are all digging in, finding it, that part of them that can make it better than it has ever been and when they mine that section of themselves as one there is not a soul in the building who comes away unaffected. I find myself thinking that they should release the last two songs as a single. I would give anything to have a vinyl version of them from the soundboard. But which would be the A-side? A double A-side, I decide.
10:10PM… I think. Maybe. It could be 10:30… It might be 9:50. Honestly, it doesn’t matter:
The crowd seems stunned after Imagine and Mother. I know that I am. This has gone from being a very good show to one of those special nights that you will remember for the rest of your life and you know that’s how they want it. I begin to realize that there is plenty left to come. Perhaps it is Eddie’s playful nature, the way he baits the crowd by teasing that it is a school/work night and that they should pack it in early which spawns howls of disapproval from the thousands who are beginning to hope that this thing goes on until someone forces us all to leave. Homemade “Happy Birthday” signs have started to emerge from different corners of the arena. I have no idea why.
But then panic, for just a moment, as they move as one to the back of the stage. Even Matt Cameron is up off the riser and stepping down and waving to the crowd. Are they bowing out, saying goodnight? No. Something else. It’s unclear until Matt strikes the snare on a mini kit set up facing the stands behind the stage and then we realize, all of us, that they have planned this, that they are going to play a song facing those who have not had a great view and the song is Last Kiss. Again the crowd serenades them back and as the last notes die down Eddie seats himself behind the big drum set and matches Matt for the last few beats and everyone is smiles. These guys are having fun.
They move back to their usual spots for Breath and Eddie tosses the mic into the crowd in front so that they can sing the falsetto part and fishes it back just in time for his next verse and they alternate like this until it is over. Euphoria expanding and rising like the multiple clouds of cannabis smoke that can be seen in every section of the crowd. It smells like the back room of a Boulder head shop in here. Breath gives way to Leash and now everyone bounces as one. More than one wide-eyed whooping “yes!” explodes from fans who never dreamt they might hear this one tonight. Pandemonium.
Eddie finishes and introduces his guitar tech who also doubles as “part time bartender” and requests a new bottle of wine. After a moment’s consideration, he hands it down to the front row and asks for another and then demands it be passed all the way back to a man standing in the rafters in the WAYYY back. White shirt. Everyone sees him as he stands on his chair and raises his hands toward the ceiling. Finally Ed uncorks his own new bottle and launches furiously into Rearview Mirror.
If Given to Fly and MYM and Porch and Imagine and Mother were worthy of being unforgettable show stoppers that defined any other show, somehow this one levels up. Ed attacks his guitar with as much energy and passion as we’ve ever seen and the band is with him and these guys don’t seem tired. The sound is perfect. Better than any album will ever capture. Matt Cameron is sneaky powerful. He’s barely broken a sweat and seems to play laissez faire until the sound hits you. When he strikes the snare or the kick drum you feel like he’s trying to puncture your chest. McCready has traded his destructive tendencies toward the light rig for running laps around the stage and rather than aid him his band mates are creating obstacles he must clear to keep going. Ament extends the neck of his bass for a hurdle and Eddie offers a similar challenge with his mic stand and Stone just grooves like he always does, lost in it, finding it, and Boom toils away at the keyboards and I wonder what it must be like for him. Does he wake up in the morning and realize he’s part of one of the greatest bands of a generation and if he does, how does it make him feel?
By the time it ends the mele on the floor has extended to every level of the building. Matt strikes the kit one last time and the lights go down and they’re gone and the crowd howls for more and I wonder if this time they’re really done and think to myself, “they must be. How do you possibly top that?
11:10PM, or near that time, somewhat:
The crowd keeps up the racket and they come back out. Eddie mentions they only found out a few days previous that this night marks the 24th anniversary to the day of the first show Pearl Jam played together at the Off Ramp in Seattle. He mentions how they wanted this to be one of their best shows in the past few years and then, almost as an afterthought, says, “or maybe of our entire fucking lives, who knows.” And then they launch into Once and the crowd is still there, still throwing themselves around to the music. They pause long enough for Eddie to thank his band mates. He praises Matt Cameron as a great human being since we all know what kind of drummer he is and jokes about divorcing a few other drummers along the way. I make a mental note to prepare for the wrath of the Dave Abruzzese fan club, those self-righteous trolls who will clog the comment sections on whatever publication covers this show and they’ll rail about the lack of respect because, I mean, Dave played on Vs. and did what Ed asked of him on Vitalogy and that makes him great because… what? What about Ten? That was Dave Krusen. Get over it. Eddie also points out Mike M’s greatness and gives love to Boom and then takes extra time to point out that Stone and Jeff have been doing this together for thirty years. He thanks them for an unforgettable ride and then Stone steps up and quietly thanks Ed and you realize these guys love each other. They follow it up with an incredible rendering of Black tagged with “we belong together” and then State of Love and Trust during which the audience reaches down for their reserves of energy and thrashes accordingly and if that is not enough the sing along with Betterman ensues with everyone wailing along at the top of their lungs while Eddie strums and orchestrates through the first verse and chorus.
After Betterman Eddie reminisces some more about what happened after that first show, how they recorded eight or nine songs the next day and then on the 24th of October he flew back to San Diego and resumed working at a gas station but it was different, he says. Now he had a tape with songs on it. It was real. And on the 25th he gave his thirty day notice. The best feeling ever. The last time Eddie Vedder would know the feeling of quitting a shitty job. They launch into Wasted Reprise and follow with Life Wasted and then, when you’re sure that Eddie’s voice must be shot because the entire crowd’s voices are shot from singing along and we’ll all be hoarse and sore-throated for a couple of days, just when you’re sure of it, Boom riffs up Baba O’Riley and the lid blows off the building as the crowd loses its collective mind. Everyone pogoing as one. Everyone trying to sing along. As the crowd carries the first chorus Ed follows up with a scream that you would expect from him if this were among the first five songs in the first set… but now? He nails the vocals. The entire band nails the song. It is a love fest between band and crowd.
And then Alive. Eddie is drunk enough that he’s just barely getting over the monitors without falling as he runs from one end of the stage to the other but this is rock and roll. It’s oddly reassuring that a rock band can get lit and bring it and have fun doing so. The band thrashes through the song and Vedder tosses tambourines into the crowd. He calls his shot, pointing to the person for whom it is intended and then launching it. At one point he tosses one into the middle of the GA crowd and it is intercepted by a gentleman taller than the person Eddie intended. He stops and stares and it is serious and like a gentleman the taller fan turns and hands it back.
At one point Ed is slightly staggered and has a tambourine in one hand and asks for another and a stage hand tosses it up and he swings his right hand behind his back and catches it and in one motion tosses it out to another fan. A serendipitous moment that epitomizes just how this show is going.
Alive is done and the lights are fully on and the band has been enjoying us as much as we have enjoyed them. Ament looking up into the rafters and pointing. Stone standing back and taking it in. McCready strums the opening of Yellow Ledbetter and the lights stay up and the crowd sings along elated though they don’t really know the words. We know this is it, the last one, but they have one last surprise in their bag. McCready adds the national anthem onto the final riff of Ledbetter and plays it through and somewhere Jimi Hendrix smiles. As he finishes the band douses him in champagne and then they mingle for a moment. As if they like us would like it to last a little longer. Finally they bow as one and with a last goodbye from Ed they depart and as I wind my way up the steps toward the exit I hear it again and again. “That was fucking amazing!” And there is no hyperbole. No one says it because they think they’re supposed to. It was simply fucking amazing.
I top the steps and step into the chaos of bodies making their way to restrooms and exits. Pearl Jam played the first note over three and a half hours ago. Their encore breaks were five minutes, tops. Who would have thought, in Denver of all places, we’d have the good fortune of a show like this? I lost Mike hours ago. He has already made his way to the bus stop and headed back to Boulder. I filter out with everyone else, hoping like hell I still have that goddamned valet ticket and that somebody will tell me how it works.