Pearl Jam: PJ20 Festival (Day Two)
Alpine Valley, WI
Sunday September 4, 2011
By Anthony Kuzminski
Photography by Adam Baker
The second day of PJ20, Pearl Jam’s celebration of their two decades together, was in complete contrast to the dreary day before. While the music had to rise about the grey clouds and continuous rain on Saturday the second day took place under blue skies with picturesque clouds and a slight breeze making for an optimal outdoor experience. On day two, with the weather on their side, the acts let loose in a flurry of 12 non-stop hours of music. What differentiates PJ20 from other festivals was that each band was hand chosen by Pearl Jam themselves and as a result, the talent level was spectacularly high. Those who arrived to Alpine Valley early enough were charmed by a series of acts wholly unique and entertaining.
One band who made an impression with an eclectic 30-minute set full of electronic flair and sunshine magnetism was thenewno2, led by Dhani Harrison (son of George). I mention this only in the hopes you will seek them out not because of who his father is but because of what he brings on his own with his five band mates. The music of thenewno2 might not be what people expect from the song of a Beatle but what made their set under the sunny skies such a wonder was the friendship between each other. There were beams of happiness emanating from them as they seemed to be all too pleased to be part of the festival. Dhani shifted between vocals, guitar and even keyboard from time to time where he funneled his guitar through it. Like any band worth their weight, thenewno2 exceeded their recorded output with a clamorous set highlighted by Harrison’s stage presence and the fierce drumming of Oli Hecks.
In a jacket, sunglasses, bed-head hair and a guitar Joseph Arthur improved on his set from the day before. Using samples and loops, he is a one man show that you can’t take your eyes off of. He’s a beat poet/artist whose sets were slowly magnified by their strength with each passing song. Matters of the heart were at the core of each song paired with lyrics that cut so deep he comes off as a prophet of life. Arthur painted scenic pictures (and drew a few to boot on stage) with his spoken word poetry that entranced. When he performed “Honey and the Moon” the crowd seemed to gather around the stage a bit closer, listen more attentively and let the wonder of discovery take them over. One of the reasons music festivals exist goes beyond value but discovery. Arthur has been making illuminating music for far too long to not have broken into the mainstream. “Honey and the Moon” is an understated song weaved with such poetic and stunning lyrics it has the potential to ruin love for the listener. His affecting lyrics paint a picture that you don’t hesitate to jump into and become part of. I’m fortunate to experience love as grand as the tale he tells, but most are not. That being said, it’s just a mere sample of what Arthur has within him. Mike McCready, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron joined Arthur on "When the Fire Comes" and “In the Sun” as they had the day before in one of the highlights of the festival. “Sun” is a prayer of conviction and under Wisconsin skies; those who turned out for Arthur were awed with his arsenal of tales of faith.
Liam Finn’s set was full of energy both days. Beginning with a convulsive guitar riff like he had the day before, this time around there was a special guest waiting in the wings who sat behind the drum kit and on vocals; Eddie Vedder who made his first of five appearances on Sunday. Finn has never needed help on a concert stage but Vedder’s presence kept the crowd engaged. Glen Hansard followed Finn and just as he did on Saturday, tore through an acoustic set of searing odes to love. The performance of “Say It To Me Know” was especially bracing as he closed his eyes and released an ardent wail that was jarringly genuine. If he’s masking it, then he should consider acting full time. Watching Hansard is an eye opening reminder of the command of a single voice and guitar. You get a sense of him performing out of need rather than want demonstrated magnificently on the Frames song “Pavement Tune” and the Van Morrison cover “Astral Weeks”. He performs each show with the same passion that pulled us in so quickly at the beginning of Once where the quiet street isolated his voice, guitar and soul. For an Irishman, he wears his heart on his sleeve and pulls the audience in to experience not just the pain but the bliss as well. Hansard’s set was also one of the weekend’s most expressive moments as Hansard spoke about an event that transformed his life in the summer of 2010 when a fan leapt to his death at a Swell Season gig in San Francisco. In the dizzying days that followed, Hansard’s phone rang and it was Eddie Vedder on the other side of the line. Vedder who had been through a similar situation a decade before continued to call every day until these two men found themselves in the studio together where Hansard assisted Vedder with the vocals for “Sleepless Nights” from his recently released Ukulele Songs record where the song represents a weighty moment of splendor where through pain something beautiful is birthed. Both men felt tormented over the loss of human life and questioned their own faith. Think of those whom you have witnessed passing onto the next life. Has it ever happened suddenly in front of you with no warning? Hansard needed guidance in those days after the tragedy and Vedder showed him the way. As Hansard told this story to the crowd at Alpine Valley, everyone was riveted. Through music, they found a way to heal their pain and it was at this moment when Vedder appeared on stage for the Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly”. The line “You have suffered enough” was delivered with a powerful emotional tone by Vedder proving that even on these special guest spots he wasn’t calling it in. John Doe, formerly of the band X closed out the secondary stage and a few songs into his set Vedder appeared once again for “Golden State”. Vedder, in sunglasses and shorts, played it up but never taking away from the artist on the stage. Earlier in his career, Vedder was so precious about everything and these days, he appears much more contented in his own skin as he helps his friends out and exposes his fan base to music and artists he deems worthy of our time.
On the main stage, Mudhoney once again delivered an insurgent set with Mark Arm going it alone without a guitar for most of the set. On “The Open Mind” and “Tales of Terror” Arm prowled the stage like Iggy Pop channeling his punk spirit. “Hard On For War” and “Next Time I Get Next To You” were especially forceful reminding us the spirit of grunge. Just as they did the first night, Queens of the Stone Age moved and grooved the crowd. Singer and guitarist Josh Homme was downright ferocious in the band’s punk-metal songs. “Make It Wit Chu” was the calmest and coolest song performed by any of the openers on the main stage. Homme’s vocals were impressive as he swayed and snarled evoking the smell of sex. On “Little Sister” Vedder continued his special appearances where he helped the band out on cowbell and percussion. By the time the Strokes made their way to the stage, the crowd was in fine spirits and their twelve song set seemed to connect more with the crowd this evening. “What Ever Happened?” wrapped itself around the crowd early on with one of Albert Hammond Jr’s nimble notes leapt off the stage. As “Reptilia” had the crowd moving, it was a lost moment because front man Julian Casablancas did little to keep their momentum or attention. A potential clap-a-long died almost immediately without a singer willing to spread the disease. The crowd picked up when Josh Homme came out on stage for a relentless rendition of “New York City Cops”. “Hard To Explain” was a reminder of the dreamy urban dreams the band can call to mind. Eddie Vedder made his fifth appearance of the day on “Juicebox” as he had the night before in a performance that brought the crowd to its knees and climaxed with a Vedder high kick. Despite minimal interaction with the crowd, the Strokes catalog of songs is beefy enough to command their attention. My one criticism is that while it was good with a bit more effort and engagement it could have been great and surpassed the incredible set by Queens of the Stone Age.
Pearl Jam began their three hour set with the b-side to “Alive”, “Wash” which has historical significance to the band as it opened several early shows back when the band was called Mookie Blaylock. The sparse song was performed under a blue light where the band was barely visible making the song the focal point of attention. “The Fixer” truly kicked the evening into overdrive with the whole crowd waving their arms in the air shouting “yeah-yeah-yeah”. This zealous interface solidified not just a celebration of Pearl Jam’s twenty years together but the fans that have stayed on the train for the ride as well.
The 33-song set was full of vintage classics, rarities and buried treasures. “All Night”, a Lost Dog track was welcomed by the crowd. Recorded the week after their legendary Soldier Field show in Chicago in July of 1995, the song has stood the test of time and has become a semi regular concert staple despite being left off No Code. “Given to Fly” a classic rock stadium anthem if there ever was one was dedicated to Dennis Rodman in a performance that was nothing short of spiritual where the performance aimed squarely at the heart and hit it straight on. Other war horses such as “Jeremy”, “Daughter”, “Even Flow”, “Black” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” ascended to new heights backed by choruses where the crowd swallowed the songs whole. Other rarely performed songs included “Pilate”, “Habit”, “Satan’s Bed” and “Red Mosquito”. On “Pilate” the crowd took the chorus away from the band and made it their own. “Satan’s Bed” featured a hypnotizing performance with Vedder making his way inside the emotional crevices of the song while the rhythm section of Jeff Ament on bass and Matt Cameron on drums threw all their might into the song. During the encore “No Way”, written by Stone Gossard was performed after Vedder encouraged and pushed him to perform it. Despite the meticulous precision and concentration the band it was the communal atmosphere the enveloped the whole evening. There were no beer runs or bathroom breaks as each song was given a stadium welcome by the fans as if it had been played ten times a day on the local radio station.
Two specific songs reached heights I had never imagined during this show; “Love Boat Captain” and “Unthought Known”. With the crowd acting as the seventh member of the band, it urged the band to tap into the isolation, desperation and revelation within the hearts of the crowd. “Unthought Known” is an easy on the ears anthem from Backspacer but in concert it allows the crowd to relinquish pent up anger from the past with a clear focus on the future. The way the crowd shook the amphitheatre was something that can’t be expressed in mere words. “Love Boat Captain” was written in the shadow of the tragedy that occurred at Roskilde in 2000. Despite seeing the song performed before, it never came to life the way it did with the fans serenading not just one another but the band. As Vedder sung "I know it's already been sung,...can't be said enough/Love is all you need...all you need is love....", the crowd took over and at a volume I rarely hear in concert, they put you into the middle of a emotional hurricane where all of our fear, uncertainty and resentment evaporates amongst a strapping sensation of love I’ve only experienced at possibly a dozen other concerts in my life. Once again, out of tragedy something striking was birthed and is now more than a song but a prayer for millions around the world. The performance on this evening was as redemptive as the opening riff performed by Stone Gossard on “Alive” and one can only hope the show receives an official bootleg release if only for this singular performance.
The 15-song encore defined the word epic from the cold fury of “Sonic Reducer” (with Mudhoney) and “Spin the Black Circle” (dedicated to small record shops) to the awesomely uncommercial “Smile” (with Glen Hansard) to the moving and delicate “Just Breathe”, a sign that their best days may be ahead of them. Just as they had the night before, Chris Cornell graced the stage once again for another Temple of the Dog set that found Cornell’s vocals on the heartrending tracks rising like a mist on an early morning lake. “Hunger Strike” and “Reach Down” (with a jaw dropping solo by Mike McCready) were the only two songs in the entire show repeated from the night before. “Call Me A Dog” and “All Night Thing” further reminded the crowd that if they haven’t played the album (done as a tribute to Andy Wood), then they should when they get home as the songs segue from gentle to gargantuan yet all are tender reminders of our short time on this Earth. “Hunger Strike” bristled with affirmation from the crowd, knowing this isn’t something anyone bears witness to all that often. Cornell and Vedder locked eyes and voices losing themselves in the moment. This weekend’s festival wasn’t all about the past but the present as well and how these friends have travelled many roads together where there have been casualties, but above all else, they have survived, thrived and have kept the ties that bind intact.
Pearl Jam has always delicately treaded water always forging ahead with a slight glance towards the past. As they have aged, they have grown not just as musicians and a band, but as people too. Over the two nights, 59 different and unique songs were performed and while they cover a bevy of emotions, the one emergent them was that of healing. Even in the songs that highlight disillusion, the experience of the past two decades was on display in the performances. Rather than mere blistering yelps, songs like “Jeremy” and “Alive” came off as life anecdotes for us to take something away from. It’s rare for a band to grasp such an infinitely large group of passengers for not just a few years but for two decades. As a result of the keenly aware on board, it make the ensuing commute that much more adventurous and idyllic. Opening the encore was Vedder alone on a guitar performing a song he had just penned earlier in the day. The official website refers to it as “Improv” and Vedder sung "Never thought we would, never thought we could/So glad we made it/I’m so glad we made it/I’m so glad we made it to when it all got good." There is a grave almost macabre idolization of music artists where some foolishly feel that acts that left us in their twenties were lucky because they never saw a decline in their artistic output. This is the greatest rock n’ roll lie ever told. All I ever think about when I hear a Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain song is how much great music we missed out on. It’s easy to let innocence wash over you and have youthful aggression define your existence, but what they never tell you is that it’s infinitely more powerful to grow up and transform your life and those around you as a result of your experiences.
Pearl Jam celebrated their 20th anniversary in grand fashion where their most devoted fans turned up and didn’t just watch, but partook in the whole performance. PJ20 was a liberating festival because it wasn’t about fantasy or even mere entertainment but about the beating hearts inside each of us. Pearl Jam’s catalog of songs are chock full of iridescently beautiful songs that weave tales of disillusioned dreams and stern tenacity. However, beneath the sonic aggression and solemn hymns there are inherent road maps for life lined with love making us all better men and better women.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter