Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field, Chicago, July 19, 2013
Had it been an MLB game, it’d have been about 17 innings long. And since Pearl Jam was taking over an MLB stadium — Wrigley Field, to be exact, home to Chicago native Eddie Vedder’s Cubs — we’ll credit the band with their longest-ever concert at just about seven hours. Of course, the Seattle alt-rock survivors didn’t really play that long. In fact, none of us knew what they were doing between 9 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. last night.
Vedder had warned the sold-out crowd that gray skies and, worse, torrential rain, were a-comin’. But when the band stopped play following a beautiful rendering of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” with nary a mist in the air, you sorta got the feeling that, perhaps, Pearl Jam were being alarmists. Maybe experiencing tragedy first-hand — as the long-running Seattle outfit did at Roskilde 13 years ago — will do that to a band.
Vedder expected the inclement weather to come and go, but 45 minutes after Pearl Jam turned off their amps, there was still no rain. When it finally did come, though — with epic fits of lightning — it didn’t look like it would ever stop. Some of those expecting Vedder to eat his words left, never to return. And some of them may be only learning now that Pearl Jam did, in fact, play on.
The curfew — previously 11 p.m. — had been extended, but no one was certain how long until Vedder tweaked legendary Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks’ famous saying with “let’s play ’til two,” when the frontman arrived back on-stage 15 minutes shy of midnight. You half-expected him to channel the chronically tardy Axl Rose and caterwaul, “Do you know where the fuck you are?!?” Instead, he pulled a Cubs jersey over his head and launched into his ode to the Cubbies, “All the Way.” He even brought Banks on stage for a reprise.
But early on, before the rain delay, Pearl Jam had remained in neutral. They’d whipped the crowd into a frenzy with droning opener “Release,” but they could have done the same with a game of charades. It wasn’t until after “All the Way” that they found their groove. “Do the Evolution” and “Corduroy” — the latter featuring the timely opening line “the waiting drove me mad” — found the band in peak form. Mostly, though, it was when they ventured into controlled chaos on elastic live staples like “Evenflow,” “Rearviewmirror,” and “Porch” that were the occasion’s biggest highlights. With lead guitarist Mike McCready’s masterful shredding (sometimes with his guitar behind his head), and bassist Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard keeping the grooves on point, Pearl Jam would spin off into transcendent, feedback-rich jams that knew when to say when.
Speaking of which, Vedder schlepped his accordion onstage at one point for a rare rendition of the silly, schizoid dirge “Bugs,” a chestnut from 1994’s Vitalogy that gives diehards reason to brag when it makes a setlist: “Yeah, I’ve seen them play ‘Bugs.’” Meanwhile, those not in the fivesome’s Ten Club are left to wonder, “That, but no ‘Alive?’”
One would think that by the time 1 a.m. rolled around, few smartphones would still have the necessary battery power to shoot partial videos of songs for the web. There may, however, be a few YouTube videos that crop up of three new songs performed last night. The first, and also the first single off the forthcoming Lightning Bolt, “Mind Your Manners,” sounded like a not-too-distant relative to “Spin the Black Circle,” while the title track (Pearl Jam’s very first) proved a lot less electric than the lightning that had previously coated the night skies. And the spare, acoustic ballad, “Future Days,” would be at home on any number of WB melodramas, if only Pearl Jam would ever consent to that type of thing.
Those who made it to the end will likely call it a classic, if only to justify the late hour and nutty circumstances. But Pearl Jam are worth the effort even on their worst days.