Pearl Jam toasts Detroit in epic show
Pearl Jam's colossal show at Joe Louis Arena Thursday night hit several impressive numbers: 30 songs. 170 minutes. Sold-out crowd of 19,000 fans. And who knows how many bottles of wine.
It was a special night at the Joe, with a genuine sense of fondness in the air, both from the crowd and the band. It was the future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers' first concert in Metro Detroit in eight years, and the band's first time ever playing the Red Wings' home.
Lead singer Eddie Vedder, especially, seemed humbled to be in the heart of Hockeytown. "It looks real good with everyone here," he told the full audience, packed in even behind the open stage, early in the night. "This is one of the best-sounding rooms we've played in a long time. Must be all the banners you've got hanging up here."
He then toasted the crowd with one of a seemingly endless stream of wine bottles that was never more than an arm's length away. "Here's to being at the Joe," he said, taking a swig of what he called "the good stuff."
It was good stuff all around on Thursday, a pre-weekend ripper that more than made up for the lost time since the band's last Detroit show. The production was minimal but tasteful, with a junk structure that resembled Batman's symbol hanging overhead and video screens on either side of the stage projecting footage that looked as cinematic as a concert film. Vedder was in a spirited state of mind, rattling off references to Detroiters past and persent and leading his band through tributes to the city's musical history. There were touches of the Stooges (an intro of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" led "Corduroy"), Ted Nugent (a bit of "Stranglehold" was built into "Black, Red, Yellow") and the MC5 ( "Kick Out the Jams" came late in the set), and the band even tore through the intro to Kiss' "Detroit Rock City" while leading into "Spin the Black Circle."
Dennis Rodman got a shout out, as did former Detroit Red Wing (and close Vedder pal) Chris Chelios, who was in the house to accept his propers, as well as a bottle of wine that Vedder handed him from the stage. Jack White was mentioned, as Vedder dedicated "Light Years" to White and his keyboard player Isaiah "Ikey" Owens, who died earlier this week. Out-of-towners got mentioned too, including Matt Lukin, the Mudhoney bassist who was on hand and to whom "Lukin" was dedicated. And John Lennon received a dedication as well, when Vedder wished him a happy birthday (Lennon would have turned 74 last week) before performing a solo version of "Imagine."
But mostly Thursday night was the Eddie Vedder Show, and Vedder was in a loose, playful mood that only got looser and more playful as the night progressed and the wine flowed more freely. He explained to one fan holding up a sign asking the band to play the "Riot Act" deep cut "Get Right" that "we just don't remember it," and chastised another fan who insinuated he could take down Chelios in a fistfight. "It's a Public Service Announcement, don't (mess) with Chelios, I'm just saying," Vedder told him. "Go home and play your NHL video game and try and beat him up there, that's as close as you're gonna get."
Vedder also felt like breaking a few things during the show, swinging his guitar at a light hanging close to the stage and shattering it (and tripping over an amp in the process), and later smashing a guitar to bits and stomping on its remains. It was a grand rock and roll display, beautifully destructive and shambolic. But it was also controlled: Vedder knows how to toe the line between elegant and wasted, and did so all night.
His fellow bandmates gave him a net on which to fall, crunching through material with firepower and muscle. "Evenflow" ended in an extended, accelerated jam, as did "Rearviewmirror," which closed the group's main set. "Better Man," which finished off the first encore, was also revved up and drawn out, and found Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready trading fake jabs and karate kicks like two brothers play fighting in the backyard.
The crowd, an appreciative, attentive bunch mostly in their 30s and 40s, deserves a lot of credit for how well the show went over. Arena shows can be downers when fans are more invested in their phones than the show or when large sections of seats are curtained off because they weren't sold. But Thursday's crowd was into it all the way, even igniting for the introduction of drummer Matt Cameron, which made the atmosphere electrifying. "It's like Game 7 in here," Vedder told the audience late in the night, "and it's all 'cuz of you."
The setlist heavily favored the group's massive '90s run, songs every Gen X-er was required by law to know by heart. It wasn't until five songs in that the band touched on something less than 20 years old — the driving "Mind Your Manners," from last year's "Lightning Bolt" album — and they never strayed far from their core material.
Interestingly, during the night there were several nods, conscious or otherwise, to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The band's stage was set up like a Springsteen stage, open in back to allow for 360-degree seating. Vedder took hand-written signs from the crowd and used them to engage with the audience, a la the Boss. And the night's final songs were performed with the arena houselights up, a trick Springsteen has used for years when performing "Born to Run."
Additionally, several times during the show, Vedder grabbed hold of his microphone stand and leaned all the way back until his head touched the floor, before springing himself back into place like a wind-up toy. Besides being an impressive display of flexibility, the move is classic Springsteen.
The similarities don't end there; both are politically charged performers with massive followings who form communities around their concerts, and neither show any signs of slowing down. Sure, Springsteen's got 15 years on Vedder — Springsteen is 65, Vedder turns 50 in December — but should Springsteen ever step down, Pearl Jam is there to pick up the torch and run with it. Surely Vedder would drink to that.