To continue my train of thought from last night, Mike Bordick was another sure-handed player, and had much more staying power than Craig Worthington. He parlayed a dependable, if unspectacular, glove and a mediocre bat into a fourteen-year, 1720-game career. He made it to the major leagues for good in the summer of 1991, the same period of time that Pearl Jam's wildly successful debut album Ten was released.
I've been a fan of Pearl Jam almost as long as I've been rooting for the Orioles - about fifteen years. In my childhood and early adolescence, my musical appreciation and knowledge was limited to The Beatles. The grunge-rock quintet from Seattle was the first band to puncture my cocoon, and I stuck with them long after most others abandoned the group. As their commercial success dwindled in the late '90s, I found myself still identifying with their music. During my senior year of high school, I even got one of their emblems tattooed on my back. I eventually tuned out to their increasingly sporadic new work (2000's Binaural was so discouraging to me that I didn't even bother with 2002's Riot Act), but I continued to give the rest of their library a regular listen and gave their last album (a self-titled effort in 2006) a chance; I was not disappointed.
Through all of my years of Pearl Jam fandom, I have never seen them in concert. I've heard several of their performances, and they struck me as an especially adept live band; they don't get cute and play around with the tempos and lyrics of their songs so as to render them indistinguishable, and their sound translates seamlessly from the studio to the stage. There are a few reasons I can think of for missing out on their act every time they've been in the Mid-Atlantic: poor timing, old-fashioned lack of initiative, and an inability to identify any friends who would be sufficiently interested in accompanying me. As I mentioned earlier, avid Pearl Jam fans aren't exactly legion, and the few that I've personally known were more acquaintances than friends. But when I actually bothered to open a mass mailing from Ticketmaster back in April and found out that tickets for Pearl Jam's June 22 concert at the Verizon Center were going on sale that very morning, I finally seized my opportunity. I wanted to get a decent seat, and the tickets were priced a little steep, so I pushed ahead without bothering to find a companion for the show.
This past Sunday I made my way into the concert venue and took my seat in the middle tier of the arena, situated near the back of the stage but with a decent side view of the band. As the opening act (Ted Leo and the Pharmacists) warmed up a half-full and more or less indifferent crowd, I sat somewhat awkwardly at my perch. I'm not much of a concert-goer, and I was unfamiliar with the artists on stage and acutely aware of my lone-wolf status. At 8:45, the palpable buzz in the arena built to a roar as the featured attraction took the stage. I rose to my feet with the rest of the masses as Eddie Vedder stepped to the microphone and the band kicked things off with "Hard to Imagine". For the first few songs, I was restrained by my own self-consciousness. Should I sing along? Move around in time with the music, if I were so inclined? And the age-old dilemma: what the hell do I do with my hands? I tried just standing upright with my hands hanging to my sides; it still wasn't working for me. I clapped at the beginning and end of each song, and (somewhat) in time with the rhythm of the music in between. I even buried them in my pockets now and then, convincing myself that no one would pay me enough mind to judge.
An amazing string of some of my favorite songs early in the set helped to loosen me up and pull me into the moment. The hard rocker "Hail Hail" got me moving (and even singing) with less regard for how goony I might look. I'd waited over half my life to be in that place at that time, and I wasn't going to let the imagined opinions of complete strangers - who were half in the dark anyway - hold me back. Several times I became cognizant of the fact that a giddy sort of grin was plastered on my face, and why not? I made sure to soak up as many little details of the tableau as I could. I noticed the knowing grins that Eddie Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard shot at each other. Bassist Jeff Ament seemed to be in his own world half of the time, but Stone would cross the stage to draw him out and they would play one-on-one. Matt Cameron didn't even seem to break a sweat behind the drum kit. But lead guitarist Mike McCready seemed to be the most in his element. He has a reputation as one of the greatest technicians of his generation, and he has the showmanship to complement it. He paced the stage ferociously, jumping up and down while his fingers flew across the strings and his feet manipulated the distortion pedals. He played to the entire crowd, pointing to specific sections of the crowd at various times to engage those not directly seated in the front. And of course, he showed off by lifting his guitar behind his head and playing blind on one occasion.
One of the most amusing idiosyncrasies of the show occurred as Pearl Jam played one of their biggest and oldest hits, Even Flow. During McCready's lengthy solo, Eddie Vedder wandered away to give the guitarist the spotlight. I watched as the lead singer stood near the keyboards and lit up a cigarette. He would repeat this act in the middle of a few other instrumental-heavy tunes, effectively saying, 'hey, you've got this covered. I need to take a load off for a bit.' In one instance he wandered around the back of the stage, dancing lazily, as if he were sharing a private laugh with a portion of the crowd.
I'd been pretty pleased with the song selection during the first set, as they touched on a good variety of old and new, the hits and the less-heralded. There were a few songs that I still wanted to hear, including my two favorites ("Black" and "Rearviewmirror"). But I had heard that Pearl Jam played lengthy shows, often doing multiple encores. When the band came back out just a few minutes after making an exit, I was cautiously optimistic. My hopes faded as they played an ecclectic mix of mostly newer and lower-key numbers. If I was relieved when the second-to-last selection of the encore was "Black", then I was downright euphoric moments later when I heard the opening bars of "Rearviewmirror". I actually screamed out like I was celebrating a strikeout by George Sherrill. They were going out on a high note, drawing out the bridge of the song before bringing it to an up-tempo, crashing conclusion. The Verizon Center, packed to the rafters, throbbed with cheers, screams, and applause for several more minutes.
To the delight of the throng, Eddie Vedder returned alone. He seemed overwhelmed by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd and suggested that Michael Jordan never got that kind of reaction when he made his comeback in that very building. (He might have had a point.) He played "No More", an anti-war song that he'd written last year, giving the rest of the guys a few minutes more to rest. When Stone, Jeff, Mike, and Matt joined him once more, Eddie informed the crowd in front that they should sit tight, as the band was going to play a song for the folks in the back. They then came around to the back of the stage and played "Last Kiss" for us. As their extended set approached a total running time of two and a half hours, I watched with bated breath as each song ended. The band would put down their instruments and take a few steps toward the stairs, only to hand off their equipment and pick up different instruments for the next song. It was like an extensive dream that might not ever end.
"Alive" brought down the house, and I was sure that would be the swan song. But they broke into a cover of "All Along the Watchtower", and even brought a young boy named Jake (who I assume they'd met earlier in the day) onstage to play guitar for the song. After the song was over, Eddie did a roll call of the band, thanked everyone, and...insisted that before they called it a night, he had to turn things over to Mike. So the show closed with "Yellow Ledbetter", a song I surely would have sung along with if I had ever figured out exactly what in the Sam Hill the lyrics were. As the rest of Pearl Jam took their leave, Mike stood alone once more and blared out the Star Spangled Banner on his axe in an homage to fellow Seattlite Jimi Hendrix. All told, the show clocked in at two hours and forty-five minutes, and it would have been worth twice the price of the ticket. If you have any interest in Pearl Jam, I can't recommend them enough as a concert experience. For a couple hours, I didn't even worry too much about my hands.