Pearl Jam is a religion. And Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, Boom Gaspar, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder split duties as the messiah. Church was in session Saturday in Chicago at one of the most revered cathedrals in baseball — Wrigley Field.
As the legion of Pearl Jam faithful waited for the gates outside of the Friendly Confines to open, some swapped stories of personal experiences with the band’s music, what song they fell in love with first, or how many shows they’d seen. Others talked of merch or about the record collection they’d amassed. Some spoke of the miles they’ve traveled to a show. And many discussed which songs they wanted to hear — because as any die-hard fan knows, the band’s set list changes on a nightly basis. And the more shows you see, the better chance you’ll get to hear that one favorite you’ve been pining for.
And though “Release” wasn’t played (my personal favorite), we got a good one on Saturday. Vedder and Co. emerged from the bowels of the Wrigley bleachers shortly after 7:30 p.m. and with a wave and smile from Vedder, and an opening strum of Gossard’s guitar for the Ten outtake “Wash,” the band was off and running. The weather was perfect (Monday’s Night Two performance was delayed due to rain). But as the band has had issues with rain at the venue in the past, Vedder wasn’t willing to take any chances. And in a seeming plea to Heavens above, he changed the song’s opening stanza to “oh, please, don’t let it rain today.” He got his wish.
The beautiful Yield track “Low Light” followed, with the band then working in a trio of fan favorites in “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “Breakerfall,” and “Corduroy,” the latter of which saw Gossard, Ament (bass), Cameron (drums), Gaspar (keys), and McCready (guitar) pound out the closing bars of the tune with an emotion and intensity that set the tone for the remainder of the show.
“Good evening, Wrigley,” Vedder said, when he addressed the crowd for the first time. “We’re playing on hallowed ground here tonight. … We’re gonna put on one of the best shows of our lives tonight.”
They did. The band sounded great all night. At times throughout Pearl Jam’s three-hour plus set that was packed with hits, B-sides and Easter eggs, the band would bob and weave from visceral to sweet with complete precision. Vedder was on top of his humor and charm game, too.
Vedder, who was born and raised in nearby Evanston, Illinois, at one point was teased by a fan who carried a sign into Wrigley imploring the singer to “play ‘Black, Red, Yellow’ you Evanston pussy.” Vedder countered by telling the man “we played (the song) the last time we were here,” before alluding to the fact that he probably stayed home to masturbate, fell asleep and missed the show — an assumption that drew a hearty laugh from the crowd.
Vedder also urged the men in the crowd to behave themselves, noting that there was “no place” for the alleged assault that happened a few weeks prior at Wrigley during a Foo Fighters show.
The band was also sentimental throughout the night. Seeing Cameron behind the drum kit brought an extra emotional wrinkle into the festivities. Cameron is perhaps most notable as the drummer of Soundgarden, before he ultimately wound up pulling double duty as the pace setter for both bands. It was apparent from the moment the doors opened that Pearl Jam were still reeling from the loss of their close friend and late Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell, who died in May 2017, following a Soundgarden performance in Detroit. (Read our memorial to Chris Cornell here.) The pre-show music was heavy with compositions from across Cornell’s storied career, and the band dusted off the Cornell-penned track “Missing” (which he published under the Poncier moniker for the 1992 motion picture Singles). Though Vedder appeared visibly distraught and had a shaky voice during the performance, he and the band nailed it. Perhaps in a more subtle nod to Cornell — who played a major contributing role to the film’s soundtrack — the band also played the rare one-two combo of “State of Love and Trust” and “Breath,” which were Pearl Jam’s contributions to the film’s soundtrack. Ament even sported a “90” T-shirt (just like Cornell used to wear), to boot.
With Cornell’s passing, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Alice in Chains founding vocalist Layne Staley going before him, Vedder and Pearl Jam are among the few lone living ambassadors of the grunge era that helped define a generation.
But the band doesn’t let that distinction get to them. They’re still the same band we all grew up with. They’re still the same band we turned to when we were trying to rationalize our personal struggles with our parents, our siblings, our classmates, our grades, or our lives in general. They’re still the same band we took to college with us, as we tried to gather our thoughts during a voting cycle. They’re still the same band this writer lifted lyrics from for my vows when I married (play “Parachutes” next time, PJ!), and they’ll still be the same band that we’ll turn to when we need guidance from them 20 or 30 years down the road.
Though the emotional heaviness of losing Cornell was felt throughout the night, the band was still loose, powerful and unpredictable. They relied heavily on their standard arsenal with tracks like “Animal,” “Alive,” “Better Man” and “Even Flow” and threw in a few surprises, including the ultra-rare “Alone,” and the Tom Petty cover “I Won’t Back Down.”
Prior to the Petty cover, Vedder, armed with a red Fender Telecaster that Petty had gifted to him, asked the audience to light up their phones to “let Tom know we’re thinking about him.”
Vedder, a lifelong fan of Chicago’s sports teams — including the Cubs — also shared a sentimental moment with the 40,000-plus in attendance. He recalled on the memory of Chicago sports legends who have passed on, like Ernie Banks, Harry Caray, Ron Santo and Walter Payton, and even got Cubs owner Tom Ricketts onstage with the band — along with the Cubs’ 2016 World Series trophy.
The band also offered up acknowledgment to the present Cubs, including rookie infielder David Bote (whose name sounds similar to “Bowie”) and played the David Bowie track “Rebel Rebel” in his honor.
Vedder offered other tender moments as well, when he recalled upon a time when he was six or seven and used to come to the ballpark on his own.
“I just remember coming here to this park as a little kid. It was always so simple and joyful,” Vedder said. “There’s always so much joy in this place.”
And as if that wasn’t enough nostalgia, Chicago Bulls legend and longtime friend of the band, Dennis Rodman, made a brief, but bizarre appearance. As he carried out Vedder’s ukulele so that he could play the song “Sleeping By Myself,” Rodman brought up his time in North Korea, and thanked the Chicago population for always supporting him and proclaiming that he’d be buried in the city upon his death (which Vedder asked him to delay for as long as possible).
All in all, as with any Pearl Jam show, you leave basking in the moment, and looking forward to the next time you get to hang out with the band.
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Leaving Here (Edward Holland Jr. cover)
Missing (Chris Cornell cover)
Not For You
Can’t Deny Me
I Won’t Back Down (Tom Petty cover)
Sleeping By Myself
State Of Love And Trust
Know Your Rights (The Clash cover)
Do The Evolution
Rebel Rebel (David Bowie cover)
Rockin’ In The Free World (Neil Young cover)