Gig Review: Pearl Jam, Etihad Stadium, 20th November

Warning: What follows is nothing short of an essay, and can probably only be appreciated by other Pearl Jam fans.

On Friday night, Pearl Jam played a gig in front of 50,000 people at Etihad Stadium. And, what a gig it was.

Pearl Jam are touring around the country, playing one gig only at each location, opting for major stadium venues as opposed to playing a few smaller shows. Seeing as they’re touring on the back of their latest album, ‘Backspacer’, firstly let me say that this is one exceptional album. Easily Pearl Jam’s best work in a decade, it features an interesting mix of classic Pearl Jam rock-grunge such as Got Some, pop songs such as lead singer The Fixer, and acoustic songs influenced heavily by frontman Eddie Vedder’s stellar solo work on the film ‘Into The Wild’, such as Just Breathe. It will be fascinating to see where Pearl Jam’s career heads to from here; whether they opt for one of these particular genres, or continue to be eclectic masters of everything they try.

But anyway, needless to say, I was incredibly excited in the leadup to this gig. I can’t remember looking forward to a show this much since… the last time I saw Pearl Jam, which was in 2006, at the smaller Rod Laver Arena. At that gig I was in the sitting area, and it was still an absolutely mind-blowing show, but as is always the case, I felt as if I was missing something by not being in the General Admission; ‘in the shit’, as I heard another punter describe it. For this gig then, I managed to purchase tickets for ‘The Fixer’ field of General Admission, meaning essentially the first quarter of General Admission, right in front of the stage.

I admit myself as setlist-obsessed, which is particularly true of Pearl Jam. They probably have one of the most impressive and massive backcatalogues of any band in the world at the moment, and there is simply no way that they could play every song I love in one show. Last time I saw them, they didn’t play personal favourites Daughter and I Am Mine, so I was hopeful for those this time round. I had seen enviously Perth’s near-perfect setlist, only to be slightly taken aback by Adelaide’s, which despite featuring many fan favourites and deep-cuts from albums, was missing some big hits. So, as I entered the stadium, I was eagerly anticipating which songs Pearl Jam may choose to play this time round in Melbourne.

Thanks to a friend gifted at getting to the front of crowds, I managed to get right up to the front, only a few people back from the barrier. I was a bit to the side, but on guitarist Mike McCready’s side, which is always very important at a Pearl Jam concert. So I settled in for the remainder of Ben Harper’s opening set, while my mind focused strongly on the impending arrival of Pearl Jam. Apologies to Liam Finn, I missed his opening set, however I don’t feel that guilty, having seen him at a headline gig earlier this year.

I was lucky enough to arrive just in time to see Eddie Vedder join Ben Harper on stage for a goosebump-raising rendition of Under Pressure. Vedder departed to tumultuous applause from the crowd, as we sensed that we had just got a taste of what was to come. Harper finished with a strong selection of surprisingly heavy rock songs, broken up by the beauty of Diamonds On The Inside. There was no doubt that the 50,000 people were there to see Pearl Jam, however, and Harper’s departure only served to raise the atmosphere of excitement under the massive closed roof.

After going to many small gigs this year, nothing really could have prepared me for the sheer scale of this show. There was something very special about being able to look behind you and realise that there are literally tens of thousands of people back there, all wishing they were where you were. There was also a real sense of community in the General Admission, something which is almost expected at Pearl Jam concerts, but which is nevertheless refreshing when you consider the overly-agressive nature of the standing area for many other acts.

Finally, with the excitement of the crowd growing to a fever-pitch, the stage backdrop was illuminated, and the enormous letters PEARLJAM shone brightly at the crowd, as the house lights dimmed. Enter Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, drummer Matt Cameron, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, keyboardist Boom Gasper, and bassist Jeff Ament walked onto the stage, and even they seemed to be slightly taken aback by the scope of this concert.

Vedder wasted no time in interacting to the crowd, who were already infected by his charisma and presence, and cheering wildly. He thanked everybody for coming, and stressed the importance of looking out for one another and giving everyone enough space in the standing area. It was definitely wise advice, and indeed crowd care was a prominent issue for Vedder during this gig, not surprising after the disastrous and tragic deaths at Roskilde. He was genuinely concerned with the welfare of us punters at the front, and told us we they were going to start things off nice and slowly.

And so we were greeted with the opening chord of the classic Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town. It was naturally received very strongly by the crowd of diehard Pearl Jam fans, and even though I have since learned that it is a relatively common opener, its presence at the top of the set came as a bit of a surprise, and I greatly enjoyed singing the song loudly, along with what seemed like 49,999 other people. “Me, you wouldn’t recall, for I’m not my former,” crooned Vedder, but instantly the crowd new that this was the same old Pearl Jam that we fell in love with so many years ago. “I just want to scream…” sung Eddie, leaving the crowd to shout rapturously “HELLLOOOOO!”, and the night officially had begun.

Pearl Jam continued with a few harder rocking songs, such as Animal, Got Some, and Brother, all favourites in the General Admission area, which despite being suitably excited, was also highly respectful and restrained slightly. Vedder swigged constantly from a bottle of wine, and McCready was as awesome as ever, parading up and down the stage directly in front of where I was standing. It seems he has developed an interesting habit of pointing to people in the crowd and dedicating chords to them. I was naturally extremely excited when he chose to do this to me, but slightly less so when he did the same thing to about 100 others people throughout the night.

Amongst The Waves, a surfing track off the new LP was greeted warmly by the crowd, but it could not possibly compare to the classic Even Flow, which seemed to get the band fired up as well. Perhaps it was reminding them of older days, just like it was reminding many people in the crowd of the raw excitement of Pearl Jam many years ago. They demonstrated that they still haven’t lost this rawness however, pulling off the heavy Lukin in record time.

Surprise inclusion Force Of Nature from ‘Backspacer’ worked magnificently live, and it would be good to see them play it a bit more often. The brilliant Given To Fly was dedicated to AFL footballer ‘Mark Richardson’ (Vedder would later correct his name to Matthew Richardson, saying that he had never been so embarrassed in front of so many people, to the admiring laughter and cheers of the crowd), who was apparently at the show.

Then came the moment I had been anticipating for the last three years: Stone Gossard strumming those unmistakable opening chords of Daughter. The crowd were absolutely thrilled, and could have easily sung the entire song themselves to give Eddie a bit of a break. Hands outstretched, ‘The Fixer’ reached towards Pearl Jam as one, and for that moment the distinction between performers and audience no longer existed, as we yelled and sung every word with the band. My personal highlight of the night came during this song, as Vedder sung “She holds the hand, that holds her down, she will…” only to hear 50,000 people scream as one “RISE ABOVE!” in conclusion to the verse. Eddie couldn’t help but smile warmly and humbly.

Daughter ended with a snippet of Another Brick in the Wall, an interesting choice, but one the crowd clearly appreciated. At least it meant we didn’t have to stop singing. Next was ‘Backspacer’s lead single The Fixer, and the front of General Admission was delighted to hear the song that gave its name to our area of the stadium. Indeed while at first this song was maligned by many hardcore Pearl Jam fans, it has now become a live sing-along favourite, and represents an interesting, more pop style of music, that the band pulls off with absurd ease.

Another old favourite, Do The Evolution, closed the set, and everyone was delighted to be able to finish with a good old rock song, Eddie howling the vocals loudly over the drumming of Matt Cameron. By this stage it is important to note that Eddie had consumed a lot of wine. This wasn’t stage-drinking for the benefit of the audience: it seemed as if he genuinely was a bit tipsy, stumbling a bit around the stage. But that’s what you want at a rock concert, and certainly no-one in the crowd minded one bit.

Pearl Jam’s encores have become somewhat legendary, as filled with hits as they are epic. So the crowd weren’t too disappointed to see the band members leave the stage, knowing that the night was only half-way through. Sure enough, Eddie eventually returned, to sit alone in the center of the stage, illuminated by a beam of blue light, and wielding an acoustic guitar. He played a cover of The Needle and the Damage Done, by Neil Young, saying he was inspired by Liam Finn’s cover of another Neil Young song at the start of the night. As with everything Eddie does, the song turned to gold in his hands.

The atmosphere immediately changed, as Eddie played a beautiful live rendition of the haunting Just Breathe, my favourite track off ‘Backspacer’. It is a gorgeous song, and it was truly spectacular how Eddie managed to make the song intimate, in front of an audience of 50,000 people. The only slight disappointment was that he missed a complete verse towards the end, muttering humbly “Oh shit, I fucked up…” as he finished off the song with an anticlimax. No doubt the lingering effects of that wine. The crowd didn’t care though, how could you? Although I was disappointed one of my favourite songs was messed up slightly, it’s things like these that you go to live gigs for: otherwise you may as well just get together with a group of people and listened to albums. Or go to a lip syncing concert.

Ben Harper joined the band on stage for Red Mosquito and Indifference, integrating seamlessly with the sound of Pearl Jam, and sharing Eddie’s wine. He departed, but Pearl Jam carried on with what was turning into one hell of an encore, playing Jeremy with a passion. It was a sign of the night that I had completely forgotten about this song, so caught up I was in the moment of everything else. But of course it was brilliant, building up into an awe-inspiring climax that featured a massive call-and-respond with the crowd. The first encore finished with the threesome of Deep, Porch, and Why Go, all fan favourites from the classic album ‘Ten’.

The band returned for the inevitable second encore, and at this point I admit that I was nervous about the prospects of I Am Mine and Better Man appearing on the setlist. I like to think of myself as a ‘real fan’ of Pearl Jam, I know pretty much every song of theirs, but I still want the big songs played live when I can only see them once every few years. However the second encore started with another cover, as Liam Finn joined Eddie Vedder on stage to play Throw Your Arms Around Me, which was naturally greeted warmly by the crowd, who were still running on adrenaline after nearly 2 hours of music.

I confess myself a bit disappointed with the duo of Black and Spin the Black Circle, which signalled the end of any hope of Better Man or I Am Mine being played. Pearl Jam continued with Alive, however, one of the few songs that can be relied on to appear on nearly any Pearl Jam setlist. The crowd sung as one once again: “I’m still alive”, and indeed Pearl Jam were, somehow maintaining their energy despite the length of the show.

They finished with a cover of The Who’s Baba O’Riley, which is always good, and the final song of the night was Yellow Ledbetter, which is just electric when played live. Eddie ran up and down the stage, paying respect to every single area of the crowd who had been standing for up to 6 hours straight. There were moments of hysteria as he passed, his charisma almost overwhelming. He was the man. Hell, he’s always the man.

And then, out of nowhere, the night was over. I, like everyone else, had to stand still for a moment so that my mind could comprehend what I had just witnessed.

It was inspiring to see how humble the band still were, paying respect to everyone, constantly looking after the crowd, and repeatedly thanking everyone for coming. Having 50,000 people rock up to hear you play might get to the heads of other lesser bands (cough, Kings of Leon), but not Pearl Jam. These are still the hard-rocking, hard-working guys that we know and love.

The band showed their appreciation with physical objects as well: Mike must have thrown about 50 picks into the crowd, Vedder threw his tambourines to people he individually chose out (lucky bastards), and even gave away his zippo lighter apparently, as well as the obligatory half-bottle full of wine. The whole band also kicked out AFL balls into the crowd at the end of the show (with varying degrees of skill). I wasn’t that jealous of the recipients until I saw one of the balls was personally signed by Eddie Vedder.

Allow me for a moment to indulge in my one negative aspect of the show: no Better Man. Yes, I know, Pearl Jam are constantly mixing up setlists, which I suspect is more to ensure that they don’t get sick of playing their own songs, rather than that the fans don’t get sick of them. With a backcatalogue like theirs, every set will be different, and that’s great. Sure, they like to mix up sets in each city, and they played Better Man here in 2006. But for the life of me I can’t understand why they wouldn’t play their biggest song when they come to a country for the first time in 3 years and play only one large-scale stadium gig in each city. Maybe it was just me, but I thought I could almost feel the crowd pining out to sing “Waiting, watching the clock…”. It would have completed the night, and without it there was a small part of me that was unsatisfied at the end of the night, in spite of everything else. And let me tell you, it doesn’t help to hear from other punters that it was crossed off from the original setlist.

A positive aspect of the show for me however was, surprisingly, the security guards, who were absolutely awesome people. They took photos with fans’ cameras, clapped along to songs, and constantly offered out cups of water, which were much appreciated by everyone. They even lifted fans who needed to go to the toilet over the barrier. But yet at the same time they were completely in control of the situation at all times. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Eddie requested certain elements of security’s behaviour before agreeing to play at Etihad, but whatever the case, I can’t speak highly enough of these guys.

This was a true stadium gig, and by far the biggest show I have ever gone to. Being right at the front was an experience I will probably never forget. We witnessed a band in their prime; a band that has been in their prime ever since they formed and will continue to be in their prime for the rest of their career. Pearl Jam are timeless.

The new material was perfectly executed, as befitting such a magnificent album. No less than eight songs were played from ‘Ten’, the best grunge album of all time. Matt was flawless on the drums as always, Stone, Jeff, and Boom were mostly in the background but also perfect, and Mike interacted a lot with the crowd and lived up to his reputation as one of the best live guitarists in the world at the moment. Eddie… was Eddie.

It was a night I’ll never forget, and never want to forget. Eddie lingered on the stage after the show was over and the house lights had come on, almost as if he didn’t want to leave. “Let’s do it again sometime,” he said with a smile.

Yes, let’s.

7 Responses to “Gig Review: Pearl Jam, Etihad Stadium, 20th November”

  1. Good review..i was standing where you were, a few people back from the stage on Matt’s side. I recieved a tambourine, signed by eddie vedder. i agree with you about better man, i kept starting chants for better man but it didn’t work.
    Good night, but i think kings of leon was better despite what you say about the amount of people the band likes.
    Over all, great night, love pearl jam.

  2. Fantastic review, i had goosebumps reading it and rememebering the night. it all seems so surreal now, I don’t want to let it go so soon! I too was waiting for Better man – after the end of every song in the encore’s i just kept thinking, surely now, surely now?! was very happy they played Just Breathe though!!!! thanks for taking the time write this, i really enjoyed it.

  3. I think I was a few rows behind you.

    Great review, although I don’t think “Got Some” or “Gonna See My Friend” washed over the crowd — everyone around me was singing along.

    That was my third PJ gig (Perth in ’03 and ’06) and it was far and away the best. I’m still buzzing.

  4. 4th paragraph – Mark McCready? That would be Mike (legend)
    Do you seriously care that they don’t play Better Man at every concert?
    p.s. Eddie’s always pissed, get over it!
    Apart from that – you sound like you were there, not far from me – ten clubber.

    • Hi Lisa, like I said with Eddie: “But that’s what you want at a rock concert, and certainly no-one in the crowd minded one bit.”
      And yes I would have liked to hear Better Man at the one concert in Melbourne for three years, but the lack of it certainly didn’t stop this from being an amazing show.
      Thanks for picking up on the one McCready typo :)

  5. Its the year of making money for Pearl Jam, the exclusive Walmart deal for Backspacer, the licensing of songs to TV shows and now stadium shows where you get a charged $150 to see a video screen.

    What happened to the punk rock ethic that led many people to follow this band in the first place ?

    I’m not against bands making some cash but when the fans start getting screwed like at these stadium shows, then they have really sold out.

  6. I can’t see how they have sold out.
    Yes they did a big stadium show, but at least they are still touring. The tickets were quite reasonable seeing that to see u2 at the same venue the cheapest tickets are $150 at pearl Jan that was the most expensive.
    They are the most fan friendly big band going around, city specifc merchandise in every city, every concert available on cd so you can relive the experience and still do major world tours or every album unlike other old bands who tour maybe once every ten years.

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