By Brian Ives
As Aerosmith sang in the title track to their 1977 album Draw the Line, “Hi ho silver, we were playing all our cover songs!” And while Pearl Jam didn’t play all of the covers in their arsenal at their concert last night at Boston’s Fenway Park, they definitely played a lot of them, mostly drawn from the world of classic rock. Including, somewhat surprisingly, the aforementioned Aerosmith song.
Which isn’t to say that they gave their own catalog short shift: their nearly three hour show also featured a number of their classics, album tracks, and one extremely rare song: “Strangest Tribe,” released as their 1999 vinyl-only Christmas single (available only to the band’s fan club, until it was released on the 2003 compilation Lost Dogs).
Over the past few years, Pearl Jam’s shows have become something akin to Bruce Springsteen’s shows (or, in theory, the Grateful Dead’s): they combine classics, unexpected obscurities and covers. Last night’s show was a unique one: it started out as a laid-back summer stadium gig, starting with “Release,” “The Long Road,” “Elderly Lady Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “Lowlight,” “All Those Yesterdays” (with the title line changing to “all those double plays”) and “Given to Fly.”
But the show’s two themes soon revealed themselves. First, the concert was something of a love letter to Boston, starting with the end of the mix tape played on the P.A. before they hit the stage; the last song was “Let’s Go,” by hometown heroes the Cars.
Boston was one of the first east coast cities that Pearl Jam hit in their club days. Frontman Eddie Vedder amusingly told the story of breaking into Fenway (their local show took place during the All-Star break, so the park was empty); while there, he took some Polaroids of the field, which he shared via the band’s giant monitor screens. Meanwhile, bassist Jeff Ament paid tribute to the city’s hardcore scene via his SSD t-shirt (one of their classics was “Police Beat”).
The band dedicated “Faithful” to retiring Red Sox player David Ortiz, and were joined onstage by two former Red Sox: Bronson Aroyo played acoustic guitar on “Black,” and Kevin Youkilis delivered a ukelele to Vedder for “Sleeping with Myself” (“Youk” brought the uke: well played, Boston). They even got an onstage visit by Boston based sports writer Peter Gammons.
Vedder noted that he can’t play Boston without thinking about his friend and favorite historical writer, Howard Zinn (who passed away in 2010). They then played the b-side “Down,” which quotes Zinn: the lyric “You can’t be neutral on a moving train” is also the title of Zinn’s 1994 autobiography. Strangely, Vedder contradicted that sentiment earlier in the show when he apologized for bringing up Donald Trump’s name, saying “I don’t want to do anything to divide; if anything’s going to be solved, it’s by coming together.” That’s probably true, but Zinn might not approve of the sentiment; no matter what your politics are, it’s hard to imagine that a single American is neutral on the subject of Donald Trump these days. But Vedder is probably aware at this point, that if a political statement made from the stage is juicy enough, it’ll end up trending on Twitter by the time the show lets out (and on Facebook at some point after lunch the next day).
This leads to the second theme of the night: letting the music, and particularly the covers, do the talking (to paraphrase Aerosmith). The covers began seventeen songs into the set, with a full band arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” a sadly timeless and extremely pointed protest song. That was followed by Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am a Patriot,” a song that Vedder usually does solo, or accompanied only by drummer Matt Cameron. The full-band arrangement took Little Steven’s reggae-tinged classic and turned it into a power-pop anthem. The lyrics, “And I ain’t no Communist and I ain’t no Capitalist and I ain’t no Socialist and I ain’t no Imperialist and I ain’t no Democrat and I ain’t no Republican/I only know one party and it’s freedom” is more timely today than when Van Zandt wrote it in 1983.
A lesser known cover of sorts, was “Society,” written by Jerry Hannan for Eddie Vedder, who recorded it for the 2007 film Into the Wild. “It’s a mystery to me, we have a greed… Society, you’re a crazy breed/I hope you’re not lonely without me.” Oddly, that song fit well with the next cover, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Both songs deal with checking out, albeit in different ways.
Pearl Jam aren’t the type of guys to check out, though, so it was appropriate that they followed with their own classic “Corduroy,” which also takes a dim look at the world, but fights back. Lightening the mood, and delighting the hometown audience, was the next song, the aforementioned cover of Aerosmith’s “Draw the Line,” which they played for the first time ever. Would the super serious Vedder of the ’90s have been comfortable with this cover? Maybe not, but last night he appeared to have a blast getting his Steven Tyler on.
That was followed by “Alive” and then another cover, one they hadn’t done in ages: the Beatles’ “I Got a Feeling.” They played it by request of a fan, who sent the band an email, which Vedder couldn’t quite bring himself to read; he started tearing up as he summarized it, noting that the fan recently lost his father. “A lot of people coming together can help you at a time when you think nothing will,” Vedder said, and he got a full stadium cheering for a guy who just suffered a heartbreaking loss. Which was a pretty perfect metaphor for Pearl Jam’s appeal, and what they’re able to achieve with their music.
They followed that with one last song, another cover, the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which would have blown the roof off the stadium, if it had a roof.
Throughout the night, Pearl Jam again proved that they are one of the best bands in the land, in any genre, of any age. Mike McCready’s guitar solos, as always, blew minds: his fingers run up and down his fretboards as he runs all over the stage, fully loving every moment of being a stadium headlining guitar hero. Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron are one of the tightest rhythm sections you’ll ever see and keyboardist Boom Gaspar adds texture and gravitas to the songs that he plays on. While Vedder is often the focus of attention (as singers typically are) the audience love all six members of the band.
In 1994’s “Corduroy,” Vedder sang, “I ain’t supposed to be just fun/Oh to live and die let it be done/I figure I’ll be dammed/All alone like I began.” It’s become one of their most enduring anthems and it’s one of their most frequently played songs. But last night, their show contradicted the lyrics a bit: even if the band isn’t just fun, they certainly seem to have a better time than they did in ’94, when the world seemed to be on their shoulders. And they’re not “alone” either: at least for a few hours at each of their concerts, they’ve built a community — a strange tribe, if you will — where none of the fans are alone. And like Springsteen and the Dead’s respective tribes, the Pearl Jam faithful are likely to return every time the band hits the road.