Eddie Vedder, who was born and spent his early youth in Evanston, returned to Chicago with his band Pearl Jam to play to a sold out Wrigley Field on Friday night, July 19. Despite a thunderstorm that hit seven songs in and forced a two and a half hour delay, the band delivered as it has done for decades.
Along with Nirvana and several other Seattle area bands, Pearl Jam exploded onto the music scene in the early nineties, creating the “grunge” sound that defined music in the nineties- music of the times for many. Grunge fit the politics of those days, as youth emerging from the Reagan-Bush years looked around to see culture slipping directly into Clinton era excess.
Grunge sensibility was first angry, often activist, and at times poignant. The music demanded that listeners think of who they are, where they are, and what their place is in society. It was the music of Generation X, a direct outgrowth of graduating from the me-first 80s into the angry yet reflective 90s. Grunge artists refused to accept convention or do things the way others were doing them, or the powers that be demanded. It was a way of thinking that may well have originated, at least in part, in Vedder’s Evanston youth.
Vedder and Pearl Jam insisted on creating music on their own terms, almost from the beginning. Since the early 80s, nearly every band produced music videos for most all their songs, especially the hits. Not so Pearl Jam, who agreed to a video for one song, Jeremy, from their first album, then refused all entreaties to film more for eight years. They famously scrapped with ticket sales, behemoth TicketMaster, a decision that doubtless cost them millions of dollars. At a time when everyone listened to music on CDs – remember them?– Pearl Jam insisted that all of its records get a vinyl album release. (Many of those records, released in limited numbers, are now collector’s items, commanding hundreds of dollars per copy in resale markets.)
The band’s first record, Ten, which has sold more than 10 million copies, was released in 1991. Pearl Jam never achieved that level of success. Nevertheless, despite insisting on doing things their own way, the band has continually produced new records every three or four years since. And although they helped define the nineties, the band remains relevant today. A new record, Lightning Bolt, will be released October 15.
Yet the band still feels rooted in the 90s, in grunge culture, and in many ways in an earlier era in which bands existed for music first, second and last. Whether rooted in the 90s or not, the band remains commercially relevant today.
The band’s relevance shown with crystal clarity Friday night, July 19, as fans filed in to a completely sold out Wrigley Field. Tickets on craig’s list and other resellers started at $350 to $400 for upper level seats and reached well into the thousands for field level or VIP areas. Ages ranged all up and down the scale. While plenty of youth walked the aisles, there was no shortage of grey hair.
It felt like a homecoming, not just for Mr. Vedder, but for fans alike as they, for one night, returned to life in the nineties when they first got to know Pearl Jam and grunge music. But it is not music alone that made it feel like a homecoming. Emerging from a brutal economy, with signs of improvement finally starting to filter through, paired with recent revelations about government spying, harkened back to the tail end of the Reagan-Bush days as well.
The show’s production added to the feeling. There were no elaborate laser shows, no massive, high definition video screens, no choreographed maneuvers. Five guys playing loud music shown on 80s era video technology were all the crowd wanted or needed.
Despite the feel, this is no reunion tour for Pearl Jam. The show included three new songs from the band’s forthcoming album, two of which (title track Lightning Bolt and Future Days) made their live debut. The set list included newer material as well, with three songs from 2006’s eponymous Pearl Jam record.
The nineties, however, dominated the show. By unofficial count, 24 of the 32 songs played were written in the nineties or earlier. They played just one song from their most recent release, 2009’s BackSpacer.
The show started with a series of slower songs, often a sign that a band intends to play long into the night. The opening sequence concluded with a haunting and beautiful version of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” The crowd swayed, in rapt attention, many with tears in their eyes, as the song reach its end. “I’ve changed by not changing at all.” At that point, with the crowd warmed up and ready for more, Mr. Vedder announced that a thunderstorm was on the way. The concert shut down as everyone headed for shelter.
Sure enough, the heavens opened shortly thereafter, with wind whipping trees and lightning shredding the sky. And people waited, huddled within Wrigley’s bowels, watching the storm and noting its passage. When the storm passed, and the sky cleared, the wait continued as fears of stray lightning cautioned against a too hasty resumption.
Two and a half hours after the delay began, around 11:30 that night, the band retook the stage. They would play until 2:00 am. Amazingly, it appeared as if virtually the entire crowd stuck it out through the delay. Wrigley Field remained packed; there were few if any empty seats.
Mr. Vedder began the second set by acknowledging his Evanston, Chicago-area roots. He has always been a Chicago sports fan and wrote a song, “All the Way,” an ode to Cubs futility.. He was joined on the stage by Cubs great Ernie “Let’s Play Two” Banks.
And then the music got louder, grungier, angrier. Immediately after Mr. Banks left the stage, the anger that infused so many Pearl Jam songs erupted. “Do the Evolution,” a brutal critique of Clinton-era excess, ripped through the crowd. “Admire me, admire my home, admire my son, he’s my clone … I’ll do what I want – but irresponsibly. It’s evolution, baby,” Vedder sang.
Shortly thereafter came “Corduroy,” the night’s best performance. Basically an essay on fame and how fans reacted to it in the nineties, the band lashed and crashed through the song with brutal emotion. “Everything’s in chains. Absolutely nothing’s changed,” Vedder sang. But rather than the soaring, rousing version on the record, he sounded weary, as if to say, “how could this still possibly be relevant?” How indeed.
The band kept it up, delivering one knock out punch after another. There were no over- produced, video-driven dance numbers this night. Vedder and his bandmates remain at the top of their game – skilled performances with Vedder as the band’s face and only spokesman. The music stayed in the nineties, in the Clinton years, with the grunge sentimentality ever present. Do not conform, question your place, think.
Even the song’s Pearl Jam covered spoke of the times. “Mother,” from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” seemed to have been selected entirely for one line” “Mother, should I trust the government?” And the show concluded with Neil Young’s devastating critique of the Reagan-Bush years, “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Grunge and the nineties demanded that listeners examine who we are and who we think we should be, as a country, as a society, as a generation. The message still resonates 20 years later as we face NSA spying, Trayvon Martin, health care and immigration debates, and drone strikes. While the music does not often directly address particular issues, it demands a level of self-examination other genre’s avoid. It makes us think about our place in the larger society. The grunge message of the nineties, prodding listeners to wake up and look around, is just as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.
Pearl Jam recognizes this. Their Wrigley Field show, a homecoming for Eddie Vedder. Vedder was not available for an interview, so it is impossible to know how much of a role growing up in Evanston played in the development of his world view. We’d like to think it significant.