For the thousands of Pearl Jam faithful packing theaters to see Eddie Vedder on his first-ever solo tour, the shows have been a chance to sit at the foot of their spiritual guru and drink in just a little bit more of the Jamily love. But for those paying attention – and I’m concerned that anyone who was screaming out a request for “Yellow Ledbetter” during every available moment may not have been – these long, intimate evenings also provide perhaps the first chance in Pearl Jam’s eighteen-year history to get inside the never-very-forthcoming frontman’s head and sit for a spell.
On a meticulously crafted stage set – a circular Persian rug, a reel-to-reel tape player, several antique suitcases, a pair of well-traveled golden bat wings – Vedder played for two hours both Saturday and Sunday, using a wide array of instruments to work his way through covers, the occasional band favorite, and much of the Into the Wild soundtrack, the project that clearly emboldened him to step out on his own. Despite constant references to the proceedings as an experiment – driven home by the white lab coats that everyone joining him on stage was forced to don – the shows shared the same freeform-yet-polished vibe Pearl Jam has perfected over the years, the crowd eating up dropped chords and forgotten lyrics even more than the gorgeously executed songs. And thanks to a series of seemingly random yet trenchant between-song tales, we learned fun facts along the way: Ed does a fine impersonation of both Matt Dillon and Chris Rock! He loves Harold and Maude! He’s also a closet theater geek! In the end, this all led up to the simple realization that Eddie Vedder, who’s never much tried to play the public game, was finally letting us in.
After the jump, a rundown of both shows at the Wiltern here in Los Angeles…
Unlike your average Pearl Jam tour, where set lists can vary wildly from night to night (and are frequently agonized over by a certain lead singer), Vedder’s solo tour appears to be running on a tighter track. Part of this may be due to the aforementioned set design: For these nights at the thea-tah that focus on soundtrack songs, the Vedder team not only printed faux-Playbills, but brought along a bus-and-truck caliber collection of backdrops that progress from a simple backstage environment to a traveling-show tent, then burst open at the end. Likewise, the songs began quietly – a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow,” Pearl Jam’s own “Around the Bend” and “Dead Man” (the latter off the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, not “Rugrats Go to Prison,” as was suggested) – then grew in scope until it actually seemed entirely appropriate to throw down the furious, unintelligible rant of “Lukin.” For a guy who spends most of his time standing between confirmed guitar gods named McCready and Gossard, Vedder’s chops are surprisingly well-defined – yet his gift lies not in shredding or licking or whatever, but rather in the ability to make a single acoustic guitar sound like five in “I Am Mine” and “Masters of War,” then turn around to bring a childlike simplicity to “Man of the Hour.” There’s nervousness there, to be sure, but there shouldn’t be. His command of everything from a Telecaster to a uke is stellar.
The Into the Wild material held up live as well as a collection of tiny little songs can, especially the delicate renderings of “No Ceiling” and “Guaranteed” (which my concert buddy Sarah calls “a perfect short story”). “Society” emerged as a duet with support act Liam Finn, whose loopy, infectious opening set probably deserves its own post (watch his appearance on Letterman to get a sense of what I mean); Finn also assisted on “Hard Sun,” a number so colossally triumphant I don’t want to spoil its surprise for the folks down in San Diego where the tour closes this week. As a bonus, things came to a brief halt on Saturday night when Endeavor’s Patrick Whitesell took the stage to present Vedder with the Golden Globe he won for “Guaranteed” but never picked up, the writers’ strike affording him the opportunity to spend the day surfing on the North Shore instead. As the crowd jumped to their feet, Vedder threw on a sportscoat and made a short, silly acceptance speech before sticking the statuette in front of the bat and getting on with the show.
A couple more Pearl Jam faves made it into the set (“Thumbing My Way,” “Drifting”), but much as I love singing my guts out to “Porch” – whose acoustic version stems from the way the full band has been doing it live of late – it was the covers that ultimately made the evening. Vedder took on Springsteen’s “Growing Up,” Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame,” Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” then hit me in the heart with James Taylor’s “Millwork.” (I’ve always known the latter as part of the musical Working, so I take this as yet another sign of theater-geekery). On Sunday, after treating the crowd to “Last Kiss” with former PJ drummer Jack Irons lending a rhythmic hand, and Body of War’s “No More” backed by Ben Harper, the three returned to close the show with a fierce “All Along the Watchtower,” Harper’s slide handling the Hendrix. But it was something about Vedder strapping on a banjo for Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” that got me giggling, and that I’ll remember the longest. Seriously: Go back a decade and a half in your mind and tell me if you ever in a million years would have expected to see Eddie Vedder playing a solo version of a Cat Stevens song, on the banjo. I’m guessing not.
Speaking of covering things, there’s ever so much here I want to write about. Sigh. Since brevity’s never been my strong suit, let’s just wrap things up with a cautionary tale. Saturday night’s crowd was a bit, um, well, “overly rambunctious” was how Vedder described them; Sunday, on the other hand, felt like we’d all been invited over to Ed’s house for a bottle of wine and some good conversation, as he told stories that were audible from start to finish, did comedy bits involving vacuum salesmen and a giant Obama banner, and videotaped the audience singing happy birthday to his 90-year-old grandma Margaret, then holding up their lighters for her to “blow out.” Perhaps Sunday behaved themselves because Vedder gave them a little talking-to at the top, encouraging respect and saying that he’d like to handle things the way he does with his daughter at home: No one’s getting anything if they don’t use the magic word. (This naturally led to a hundred cries of “Yellow Ledbetter, PLEEEEEASE!?!?”) But look, Saturday, you had a chance to sit and listen to what your true American idol had to say, and instead you made it all about you. Sunday’s crowd was full of grace, and they were rewarded. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Luckily, both groups got to witness the most magical moment of all: At the end of the first encore, Vedder stayed on stage with just a looping pedal and his voice, building a chant that ranged from the deepest part of his chest to the highest part of his howl. There were no words, just hypnotic sound soaring from the darkened stage. That’s why we were all there, after all, wasn’t it? That voice? On top of his artsy rug, next to his bat, dressed in a lab coat, gripping the mic stand, he remains every bit the rock star we all fell in love with, no matter how hard he may try to shake that mantle. As the chant lingered on repeat and the curtain dropped, Vedder stepped forward to clasp the hands of the fans rushing the stage, reinforcing the fact that – literally and metaphorically – these solo shows are the closest most of us have ever been to the guy who created the soundtrack to our lives. What a treat. Seriously, I sound like my grandmother, but how lucky we were to bear witness to this experiment. Let’s hope it doesn’t take eighteen more years for Ed to try another.