Pearl Jam brought gravitas and catharsis to the Madison Square Garden stage last night (Sept. 11) on the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with frontman Eddie Vedder speaking at length throughout the show in tribute to the numerous first responders who were in attendance.
Vedder said one, FDNY Lt. Colonel Mike O’Connell, told him that he traditionally leaves the city on 9/11 as a way of not having to relive the trauma, but this time, “thought it would be a good idea to be here tonight with you.” Paraphrasing another first responder, Vedder recalled how the United States unified in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, in stark contrast to how bitterly divided the country is today. “There was a time we supported each other,” he said. “That’s the part we cannot forget. Let those lessons be remembered as our solidarity to come together and keep this country straight.”
The 24-song setlist amplified recurrent themes in Pearl Jam’s work that resonated strongly given the anniversary, from pleas for connection (“Release”), elegies to lost loves (“Come Back”) and self-doubt as a step toward a deeper understanding (“Present Tense”). “This is the 37th time this band has played in New York City,” Vedder said. “I think we’ve only played Seattle 50. Here’s the thing — I don’t remember half of those fuckin’ Seattle shows. I just don’t. But I feel like we remember ever Manhattan show. This potentially has the chance to be the most memorable of them all. We are quite honored to be spending this important date with you.”
On the heels of an up-and-down show the night before at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Pearl Jam went heavy on classics from minute one at the Garden with “Release,” signaling an emotional set to come. “Porch” was a thunderbolt fifth in the set, much earlier than its usual slot, while “Present Tense,” “Given To Fly” and “Even Flow” got the venue floor shaking and sent the raucous crowd heavenward. Vedder also saluted freshly retired WNBA star Sue Bird and tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, who were rocking out on stage left and even caught one of Vedder’s tambourines later in the show.
The evening’s lone real rarity was Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns” appended with its “Chloe Dancer” intro, the first time Pearl Jam had played the two songs together since its May 1, 2016, show at the same venue. A cover of the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” was also a welcome addition, having not been played since before the pandemic. Otherwise, the set was dominated by tried-and-true favorites such as “Garden,” “Better Man,” “Why Go” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” which Pearl Jam performed facing the audience behind the stage.
The communal vibes continued on the call-and-response of “Do the Evolution,” during which Vedder donned a sparkly black jacket he joked had been left behind by Harry Styles the night before. Guitarist Mike McCready pulled Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith on stage at the end of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” while Vedder ran laps around the stage and sprayed the audience in the front rows with his bottle of red wine.
McCready closed the evening with a solo guitar version of “The Star Spangled Banner” with the house lights on, as many in the crowd removed the hats and put a hand to their heart. “This was the best night ever,” Vedder said before departing. The sold-out crowd was inclined to agree.