Pearl Jam: PJ20 Festival (Day One)
Alpine Valley, WI
Saturday September 3, 2011
By Anthony Kuzminski
Photography by Adam Baker
It's proving to be quite a year for the band Pearl Jam, not only are they celebrating their twentieth anniversary but they've filled the whole year with a flurry of releases from their Live on Ten Legs live album earlier this year, deluxe reissues of vs. and Vitalogy, a pair of Eddie Vedder solo releases along with a film, soundtrack and book all entitled PJ20. This was all complimented by a two day festival this past weekend 80-miles outside of Chicago at the legendary Alpine Valley Music Theatre. Rarely utilized as much as it was during its 1980's heyday, there is something to be said about the magic that occurs on the steep and muddy hill which is possibly one of the reasons Pearl Jam chose it as the site to celebrate their two decade run as a band. This was not your standard music festival or even your typical Pearl Jam show. This was more like a convention of die-hard Pearl Jam fans and music geeks gathering to celebrate the band they love dearly with the band hoping to turn their fans on to some great music in the process.
After record heat the day before, clouds settled over the venue early on Saturday and never left. The merchandise tents outside the shed were long and varied with fans buying exclusive t-shirts and the ever precious show posters. Members of Pearl Jam's fan club, Ten Club, were welcomed with an exclusive live CD from January 17, 1992, Moore Theater, Seattle, WA entitled "Vault #1". This is the legendary show from where the "Even Flow" video was shot. It was once again an astonishing gesture to their most constant fans. Once inside the festival there is a Pearl Jam museum, several of the artists selling and signing the one-of-a-kind posters they make for each Pearl Jam show and two stages towards the front entrance that provide more than you may expect.
Despite the rain and overall dour environment the music is what made you stop thinking. Joseph Arthur was the first artist of the day to truly take the crowd by storm (no pun intended). With just himself and a backing track, he tore his way through a powerful 45-minute set that had several in the crowd asking who he was. On his second to last song, he brought out Mike McCready, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron for "When The Fire Comes" which Ament wrote with Arthur and was given away in the Ten Club package. The 3/5th of Pearl Jam remained onstage for the riveting "In the Sun" a track best known for the hypnotic rhythm version Peter Gabriel cut a decade back. But here under the rain, Arthur's lyrics cut through the rain and people stopped looking at the other players and focused on him. Up next was a spirited and physical set from Liam Finn who was followed by the tender yet uplifting 40-minutes from Glen Hansard, best known from his appearance in the film Once. Hansard was solo and tore through numbers from the Swell Season, the Frames (his man band) and even an impromptu version of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". When Hansard began his set, the sun came out ever so briefly and the rain subsided. "Angel At My Table" and "Astral Weeks" commanded the audience's attention despite his set consisting of himself and a beat up acoustic guitar. For his finale, he pulled a fan named Damien from the crowd and they performed the Oscar winning song "Falling Slowly".
Each of the bands on the main stage tore through succinct and in-your-face 45-minute sets that perfectly set up the crowd for the main feast. The main stage festivities kicked off Mudhoney. Guitarist Steve Turner and vocalist Mark Arm were in Green River with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. Ament and Gossard went on to form Mother Love Bone and then Pearl Jam while Turner and Arm helped created Mudhoney, one of the key Seattle bands who defined the era. Never one of the biggest but their placement on this bill was a key component to the history of Pearl Jam. They plowed through a fuzzy distorted riff set with a vintage songs highlighted by "Touch Me I'm Sick" in a flurry of songs with the band barely breathing in between each one.
The steely grinding drive of Queens of the Stone Age gave the crowd the most satisfying set that didn't belong to Pearl Jam. By the time "Monsters in the Parasol" was being played (their second song), most of the crowd was on their feet. Bassist Michael Shuman stole the show with his creative bass complimented by the jumping jack rhythms of Joey Castillo. The sexual tease of "Mexicola" was driven by the rhythm guitar playing of Josh Homme. Any band can be great on record or make a single that grabs your attention but the good bands and great ones are defined by what they accomplish on the concert stage. The Queens of the Stone Age proved their worth on the stage delivering one unyielding song after another. "No One Knows" closed out their set in rapturous applause.
The Strokes were the last band to take the stage before Pearl Jam and following Queens of the Stone Age proved to be challenging. "Reptilia" engrossed the crowd and then "You Only Live Once" helped New York's new wave punk alternative darlings make their mark. In what was the worse lighted sets I've ever seen, the Strokes performed a spirited set that at times lost portions of the crowd. While their compositions stood the icy steel demeanor of some Pearl Jam fans who anxiously waited, the Strokes stage presence ranged from enthralling to maddening. Albert Hammond, Jr. is a star. His slashing chords and tight shoulder draw are not just fun to watch but brings the band closer together. Fabrizio Moretti was stoked and solid on the drum kit never missing a cue or key. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture was cool with his Warholian stare and hair. Singer Julian Casablancas sounded great but his lack of eye contact and interaction with the crowd drew some ire. That changed when during "Juicebox" Eddie Vedder arrived onstage, giving the festival crowd their first glimpse of Pearl Jam's main man. The jolt provided by Vedder's presence bled into their final two numbers, "Last Nite" and "Take It Or Leave It". Without question, the Strokes are one of the best album bands from the last decade but their placing made it hard to focus as most of those in the crowd were discussing what Pearl Jam would open with.
At 9:45, the piano intro that has started Pearl Jam concerts the last few years could barely be heard due to the deafening roar of the crowd. Opening with their classic opener, "Release" the journey through the past and present began. Everyone's arms stretched to the air as they attempted to catch and share in the magic Pearl Jam dripped from their instruments. Reactions as powerful as the one for "Release" as usually reserved for karaoke anthems but in a field in Wisconsin, 37,000 fans from all across the globe sung at the top of their lungs for a song that was never a single or a video hit. Over the next 150-minutes, Pearl Jam delivered a concentrated 28-song set full of classics, rarities and pinch-yourself-because-you-can't-believe-you're-there moments. What differentiates PJ20 from other festivals is that it centers on a band with a devout fan base. Fans came from all over the world to see it and as a result there was a heightened sense of emotion in the room because it appeared the casual observers were nonexistent. This was a bonding between one of the world's biggest bands and their ever devoted fan base. Highlights of the early set included "Arms Aloft" (a Joe Strummer cover available on Live on Ten Legs), "Do the Evolution", the fist pumping "Got Some" and the tribal rhythms of drummer Matt Cameron on "In My Tree", a song of wonder and awakening. It's a testament to Pearl Jam as a band and their body of work how effortlessly and seamlessly these songs work with one another. Both "Breath" and "State of Love and Trust" (the latter with Dhani Harrison) found 37,000 in rapturous glee. There was the band debut of "Setting Forth" from Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack and the b-side of "In The Moonlight" with Josh Homme. "Moonlight" was performed for the first time ever and this is part of what the festival such a joy to bear witness to. Most acts could never take chances like this anywhere else other than a club, but Pearl Jam isn't unlike every other band. When they shunned the mass media, their bulls-eye was pointed at the most avid fans and that became their goal starting in the mid-1990's; to retain these fans and have them spread the word. As a result deep cuts like "Push Me, Pull Me" and "Education" had reactions as strong as stalwarts "Once" and "Rearviewmirror". There are moments at every show when an artist takes a chance and there's a group of fans who are giddy with glee the band is choosing to recognize a forgotten track while most of the remainder of the audience stares on politely; this was not the case at PJ20. The fans, their reactions, the sing-a-longs and the freshness of the song choices made these shows wholly unique. The two shows were fraternal in nature and with the first night skewing a bit towards rarities, but after seeing 37,000 sing every word to "Better Man", it was a reminder that despite their outsider status in the industry, they still have the power to evoke such spiritual reactions. Not loud, boisterous or menacing, but spiritual.
The evening's jaw dropping moment occurred in the first encore with the arrival of Chris Cornell in the encore for a set of Mother Love Bone and Temple of the Dog songs. The four song set is something Pearl Jam fans have been pining for and it's rarely ever alluded to as being possible. However, Saturday night Cornell took to the Alpine Valley stage and helped bring Pearl Jam and Seattle's music history into focus. Just like Mudhoney is linked to Green River, the Temple of the Dog project was created as a way of paying tribute to Andrew Wood, the former singer of Mother Love Bone who died far too soon eventually paving the way for Pearl Jam to be birthed. The first Temple of the Dog jam occurred in October of 1991 at the Rip Magazine birthday party and twenty years onward, it's only taken place a few times. The Mother Love Bone track "Stardog Champion" was a pleasant choice and Cornell's vocals suited the song. "Say Hello 2 Heaven" and "Reach Down" began the Temple of the Dog section of the show. Cornell often closed his eyes and let these songs take him away. Written in honor of Wood's life (who was also Cornell's roommate), he dug deep for these performances going somewhere he hasn't gone often. So much of Pearl Jam's catalog has to do with surviving the trenches of life. Death is an obstacle and Cornell with Pearl Jam as his backing band brought comfort and close to some who have experienced the loss of someone. When Vedder reappeared and the band performed "Hunger Strike" it took the show to that next level. It was more than a gift to their fans but a gift to themselves as well. Vedder's voice still sounds youthful and alienated and as Cornell wailed in an anguished howl "I'm going hungry", you couldn't help but be swept up in the emotion of not just the moment but the entire evening. Cornell, who has a full beard, was in strong form with his vocals providing a trembling reminder of not just our lives, but of the brotherhood the Seattle music scene. It was co-opted by anyone and everyone, but these friends who hoped their music might change a few lives at some point discovered Sunday night that they did indeed change lives; I just don't think any of them thought they would reach people half way across the globe.
When Pearl Jam took over the stage once again, it was with searing renditions of "Porch" and the Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me". The latter works so gloriously because I believe the band and Vedder perform it the way they did in front of their mirrors when they were teens. They don't simply perform a song because they feel it will evoke a reaction but because they see a piece of themselves inside the song. Instead of keeping their emotions in check, the band delivered their bodies and blood for the fans to take in and become one with them. When "Mudhoney" joined the band for the MC5 cover of "Kick Out the Jams" you couldn't help but feel this was something special. Despite their intensity on the stage, Pearl Jam doesn't always kick their shoes off but on night one of their festival they did and the crowd followed their every move. As we will find out in the next review, night one found Pearl Jam just getting started.
Please return to antiMUSIC in the coming days where we will provide further reviews and pictures from the second day of PJ20.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Pearl Jam: PJ20 Festival (Day One)