Front Row Focus | Concert Review: Pearl Jam (April 16, 2016)

Concert Review: Pearl Jam (April 16, 2016)

April 20, 2016  •  2 Comments

ARTIST:  Pearl Jam

VENUE:  Bon Secours Wellness Arena - Greenville, SC

DATE:  April 16, 2016

Review By:  Beth Baldino

Photos By:  David Simchock

Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock I would have hesitated to reveal my true feelings while hanging out in Greenville on April 16th waiting to see the Pearl Jam show, considering I was so completely surrounded by seriously-diehard fans of the American rock institution that brought us all to town. But, the truth is, although I was enjoying the night out and was curious about what lay ahead of me, I wasn’t exactly crawling out of my skin to see Pearl Jam, nor was I anticipating that this would be a peak musical experience. 

Hanging out on Greenville's tree-lined North Main Street for drinks and a meal earlier in the evening, I picked up on a kind of jam band vibe among the crowded streets, bars and cafés. From the couple with the adorable four-month old infant in the Pearl Jam onesie (they assured us he wouldn’t be going with them to the arena), to the gatherings of friends meeting up pre-show who wanted to swap stories about how many times they’ve seen the band and how old they were when they first got turned on to them, this was a community of music lovers who took their devotion seriously.

The fact is, my photographer partner, David, and I were PJ virgins that evening. And while I knew and deeply appreciated the group’s most popular hits, I think I only owned a couple of their CD’s and I didn’t remember them in great detail, as I had never bothered to load them into my iTunes library. The subgenre of alternative rock known as “grunge” that emerged from the area of Seattle hit its stride in the early 90’s, which was post-high school/college for my partner and me, just past that period of peak intensity in musical obsession during which you’re most likely to gravitate towards and quickly adopt the latest styles and trends. Plus, as we launched careers and attempted to seriously “adult”, the themes of alienated youth so prevalent in this musical form were not quite in sync with where our heads where at.

Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock Having said all that, Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s front man, I have always really loved. With a voice both undeniably strong and masculine but at the same time so romantically beautiful, melodic and emotional, anything he’s singing always stands out for me. With his unique ability to both rough you up and soothe you within the same song, you’d never mistake Vedder for another singer. His solo work, in particular, includes some of my favorite songs (and I do own both of those albums).

But now, post-show, I feel like I missed a train I could have easily had a ticket for because I never realized it was going somewhere I would have actually really enjoyed so much. The thing is, while Pearl Jam has been majorly responsible for helping to popularize grunge -- the fusion of punk and heavy metal featuring distorted electric guitar, dissonant harmonies and raw sound -- the group has ultimately broadened beyond the heavier influences to create a uniquely diverse and endlessly interesting body of work with great appeal for varied moods and moments. Don’t get me wrong, Pearl Jam can rock out with the best of them, but their emotional depth and the full breadth of the styles they have mastered, when you really dig into their full catalog, are incredibly impressive.

The Greenville show began without pretense as Vedder and the band walked out and got right down to business while the fans in the 15,000-seat sold-out Bon Secours Wellness Arena took to their feet in a roar of appreciation. Starting with “Corduroy” from the third studio album, 1994’s Vitalogy, this initial number highlighted PJ’s ability to produce simple, straightforward rock and roll. Afterwards, without comment, Vedder and the five band-mates who have mostly been with him since the 90’s, launched right into “Go”, the first song of their second studio album, Vs, released in 1993. They proceeded to play the album straight through, in order, highlighting the rawer and more aggressive sound of this particular piece of work. Apparently, Pearl Jam has only played a full album in concert twice before (Yield in Milwaukee and No Code in Moline, Illinois). The band’s choice made me wonder if they felt a need to quickly confirm their credentials as card-carrying rockers who can still kill it, despite being 25 years into this gig. In confirmation, a few songs down the line, Vedder asked the crowd if the music was too loud for them, replying “I was hoping you’d say that” to the resounding, “no” that came from hyped-up devotees, the majority of whom were still on their feet (and stayed on their feet for the show’s entirety).
Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock
Another  noteworthy point on Vs, which may have no connection to the set determination but is interesting because of Vedder’s well-known social justice engagement and career-long commitment to using his voice to highlight causes ranging from abortion rights to Kosovar refugees, is that this was the album the group put out right before the Ticketmaster fight in the early 90’s. When Pearl Jam went up against the concert industry behemoth in a very public dispute over concert ticket service charges, the band ended up canceling its 1994 summer tour. Whether intentional or not, this album, for which no promotional videos were produced because of all the uproar, got a full and proper airing on this evening, making up for at least a little of the lost opportunity 22 years ago.

The four numbers that followed Vs came off the band’s 10th studio album, the 2013 release, Lightning Bolt. This collection explores the full range of style and theme that Pearl Jam is capable of, and the numbers included here were a perfect, varied, tasting of this skill-set. “Mind your Manners,” which guitarist Mike McCready has described as an attempt at making a really hard edge, Dead Kennedys-sounding song, was first-up. The lyrics on this tune reflect Vedder’s feelings about the hypocrisy of organized religion. “Swallowed Whole” an evocative, mid-tempo number, followed. Reportedly written after a late night, full-moon, solo surfing session during which Vedder has been both thrilled and humbled by the huge waves, it’s one of several songs on this album that involve Vedder contemplating mortality, reflecting on “what lies beyond the grave” and how these considerations may influence how we live our lives: “I can hear the crash, I can feel the pound, I could feel the current pulling down, down, down, down. Down, down, down, down.” The artist explained to Billboard magazine that rather than wanting to focus on mortality he found it something he couldn't get away from because of the troubled society we live in, “I think part of it is not getting around it, it's getting through it,” he elaborated, “songs end up being mantras that you end up playing for yourself as well."

Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock “Sirens,” my personal favorite from this album, was up next. With its gorgeous, poetic lyrics and romantic melody, this is a ballad about the fragility of life in the shadow of the ever-present “death over our shoulders.” Describing how we can be in one moment overwhelmed by the contemplation of whether the sirens may be coming next for us, this song points out that we may also experience the sweet relief of being brought back to the moment with just a simple gaze at our loved ones. Closing out the four, the group performed “Let the Records Play”, an uplifting, fun song with a full-on boogie sound and lyrics that are relatable for any true music fan: “Shakened, awakened, not one for faking, kneeling, his healing, he lets the records play. There's wisdom in his ways.”

At this point in the show, PJ went back to Vitalogy to share more on the same theme. “Spin the Black Circle” also focused on the restorative power of music, describes the now quaint relationship one might have with a record player: “You're so warm, oh, the ritual, when I lay down your crooked arm.”  “Do the Evolution” from the 1998 release, Yield, followed. In this tune, with music written by guitarist Stone Gossard, Vedder assumes the persona of a stereotypically destructive, demonic “first mammal to wear pants,” so selfish and egotistical he’s actually bragging on what an ass-hole he is. With a nod to controversy in that other Carolina just north, Vedder added a line referencing the LGBT community, in parody of how the noxious character in his musical tale might regard these folks.

The show ended at this point, but to everyone’s delight, was far from over. The first encore began by going back to Lightning Bolt for the sweetly hopeful “Future Days,” a choice inspired by an audience member who had contacted the band about being cancer-free after a multi-year struggle with the disease.  Next was “Nothingman” from Vitalogy, a simple song with music written by bassist, Jeff Ament, on which Vedder once commented, “The idea is about if you love someone and they love you, don't fuck up...'cause you are left with less than nothing." In response to a young woman requesting the band play, “Inside Job” in honor of the shooting victims from the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy, PJ offered out “Given to Fly,” another number from Yield, this one a classic rocker loosely based on Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” (Vedder explained the group hadn’t prepared to play the song she was asking for). In this tale of a misunderstood youth who rises above his challenges and detractors, the soaring melody represents the ability of the protagonist to transcend it all and become “a human being given to fly.”

Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock “Present Tense,” also included in this set, suggests there are two ways to live--alone and agonizing over the past or in the moment, consistently reaching towards the sun, as the tree does, naturally.  This one is from No Code, PJ’s fourth studio album, released in 1996 and known for including greater diversity in sound and style than what the band had produced previously. “Comfortably Numb,” by Pink Floyd, was the first cover tune performed, during which Vedder temporarily took over pianist Boom Kasper’s instrument to show off his keyboard skills. And this encore finished with the title track from Lightning Bolt, and then “Porch” the first of two numbers the group would do from Ten, PJ’s debut studio album, wrapping up on a high energy note with this angry, anxious song about love gone awry.  

After another short break, the group returned for a final encore, this time completely repositioning themselves to face the folks in the back of the stage who’d been staring at the artist’s backs for most of the evening. These delighted fans were treated to “Last Kiss,” the teen tragedy song by Wayne Cochran. Facing to the front once again, PJ proceeded with “Breath” from the movie soundtrack for Singles, an encouraging number about grabbing life by the horns and making the most of it.  Next up was “Comatose” from the self-titled 2006 album, which epitomized the band’s hard rock roots. The iconic “Better Man” from Vitalogy, followed. Never released as a single, “Better Man” has allegedly received the most radio play of any PJ song. It also spent eight weeks as number one on Billboard’s Main Stream Rock Tracks, all the more impressive for the fact that the song was written by Vedder while he was still in high school. The melody and chord progression of the tune were loosely based on the English Beat song, “Save it for Later,” and the band segued from "Better Man" into this song, ironically also written by English Beat singer/guitarist Dave Wakeling when he was a teenager.  

“Alive” provided one of the most touching moments all evening, as Vedder went into the audience to hug a fan holding a sign reading, “Alive Saved My Life,” and he sung a few minutes of the song with him. The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” was up next, serving as a perfect pre-grunge teen angst anthem tying two generations together in solidarity. The simultaneously intense and wistful “Yellow Ledbetter,” originally the back-side of the “Jeremy” single and the only song shared from Lost Dog, a double-disc collection of B-sides and other released and unreleased rarities, proved to be the final number of the show. Co-written by Ament and McCready, "Yellow Ledbetter" was an outtake from the band's debut album, Ten, and is noteworthy for McCready’s Hendrix-style riffs. Although the song has never been released on one of Pearl Jam’s studio albums, it remains one of their most popular songs and provided a satisfying closure.

Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock While Vedder had come out, at the start of the show, with his signature notebook and bottle of red, I wondered during the early part of the evening if he would reveal any of the warm, engaging personality I’d been assured was an integral part of his stage persona. But once he did start talking, about half way through Vs, his interaction became and then remained a major part of the performance through to the end. Vedder made several trips into the crowd, trailed by a couple of imposing body guards, to get up close and personal with excited fans. He also acknowledged a number of people who had sent in requests for some kind of recognition. In addition to what was mentioned previously, Vedder toasted a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary and another out on date night (joking that this evening was at least a bit of a step up from their usual dinner at Bennigan’s). He spoke to several children in the crowd, including a young girl sitting on her Dad’s shoulders, introduced to the crowd as Magda, while her bright beaming face hovered over the venue on the jumbotrons. He gave a shout out to engineer Karrie Keyes, who also ended up on the big screen, to her apparent embarrassment. And he acknowledged Horizon Records, a local shop, congratulating owner Gene Berger on their 40th anniversary; McCready had bought the band a bunch of vinyl from Berger earlier in the day in support of “record store day.” Though Vedder took the obvious lead this evening in working the crowd, the rest of the band certainly wasn’t slacking in this regard; McCready crouched down low at the edge of the stage and got close enough to allow fans to touch his Gibson, several times. He also entered the crowd, performing a solo at one point, and throughout the show he shared guitar picks with fans eager to take home a piece of the experience.
Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock
While Vedder’s stage theatrics may have been taken down a notch after 25 years on the road, as he’s no longer climbing the scaffolding and speaker rigs, or hanging from the rafters or jumping into the crowd as he was known to in the early days, he was impressively active for all three hours of the show. He’s still stomping and jumping, swinging the mike rodeo-style, pounding the mic stand, and perching himself upon his monitor occasionally getting some air here and there. Between the all-out energy, spot-on musicianship throughout the show, consistent crowd interaction and appreciation, and the jam-packed set list, Pearl Jam was eager to please. It seemed as if it was vitally important to Vedder that he demonstrate his genuine appreciation and deeply-held respect for the people who put them on that stage in front of yet another sold out crowd of thousands. Even at the close, after the group had waved their goodbyes and his bandmates turned to walk off stage, Vedder seemed to hesitate for just a moment, looking out over the audience once more as if he was wondering if he forget to acknowledge someone who was waiting to hear from him or there could be one more young person hoping to get one of the dozens of tambourines he had tossed out during the finale.

It was nice to see someone of Vedder’s stature with a band that has reached the pinnacle of success still working so hard to be authentic with the fans, providing a top-notch, well-rounded performance. That attitude and approach will serve Pearl Jam well going forward. And, thankfully, that should give me enough time to work towards becoming a full-fledged part of the community of passionate PJ devotees as the band matures and continues on for many more years, we hope, in the tradition of other life-long rockers. I’m already looking forward to the next tour and feeling grateful that Pearl Jam seems poised to go on evolving, entertaining and enlightening us for a long time to come. 

Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)Pearl Jam 2016-04-16 (Greenville, SC)© Copyright David J. Simchock





Front Row Focus
James, thanks for your comment and query. Unfortunately, we do not have a photo for the "Alive Saved My Life" sign. David was only allowed to shoot the first three songs from the photo pit, and was not allowed to shoot anything after that (i.e., from his seat).

Sorry we cannot help.

PS: If that was you with the sign, man, that was moving. Thank you for sharing this with everyone!
Beth Baldino(non-registered)
As I didn't have an opportunity to mention him in the review, I want to acknowledge the fifth member of Pearl Jam (and sixth artist to be part of the group performing on this evening) is Matt Cameron. Matt's been a contributor to all PJ releases from Live on Two Legs, released in 1998, through today. Matt also provides back-up vocals.
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