From the Publisher

Still Alive

Pearl Jam and My Morning Jacket at Chicago’s United Center, May 17, 2006

On May 17 I saw Pearl Jam live for the first time in 11 years. I had not seen the band since they played Soldier Field in the summer of 1995. That week in Chicago began with one of Pearl Jam’s most legendary shows and ended with the very last Grateful Dead shows. It was the same summer during which 500 Chicagoans died in one week because of a heat wave. Pearl Jam played at Soldier Field on a Sunday and the Dead played on the following Saturday and Sunday. I remember the Pearl Jam show being exceptional and the Dead shows as being kind of sad. Pearl Jam was riding high at the time. They were touring in support of Vitalogy, released in December of 1994, and were fresh from their battles with Ticketmaster. The band was at the top of their game.

The Dead on the other hand were literally at the end of the line. Garcia was a husk of what he once was, burnt out by heroin use and too many years on the road. When he wasn’t mumbling lyrics and fumbling songs he had played thousands of times before, he was walking off stage, probably to regain his composure and catch his breath. It’s been well documented that the Dead were somewhat forced to do those last few tours. They had built a huge organization around touring. Touring was the core of their business model, and they employed hundreds of people who depended on that business. They had no other choice but to keep going. I’m sure they still loved what they were doing, but they were a group of unhealthy guys in their fifties. They should have been taking it slower, but they couldn’t. They had people depending on them.

I had only gone to a handful of Dead shows before 1995. I admit to being one of those folks who went for the party and got drawn into the music somewhere down the line. Their music really wasn’t my thing at the time but it had a spirit that reeled you in. The music was the hub of a larger scene that made you want to be a part of it. Many people like me went to these huge parties in the final days of the Dead. Sure the band was past its prime, but they still had their moments of inspiration and there was always that energy in the room. It was created by everybody at the show: the band, the fans, and the lookers-on. That energy and larger sense of community were the things that kept luring me back to big rock shows and one of the main reasons I went to see Pearl Jam at the United Center.

The other reason I went was to go see the opening band, My Morning Jacket. We arrived early at the United Center to make sure we didn’t miss a note of MMJ. I have only seen one other rock show at the UCU2 back in 2001. It’s a great venue for basketball, even better for hockey, but it’s not made for music. It’s a big barn that feels somewhat sterile. I would have loved to have seen MMJ at a smaller venue, but I missed them the last time they played here, at the Vic Theatre. That evening My Morning Jacket had the advantage of going on in an empty house. Their sound didn’t get eaten up by all of the bodies. All that meat can muffle things, but MMJ played to a sparsely filled room. Their sound expanded across all of the open space and felt like it was building up momentum when it hit you.

They started out very subdued, playing the low-key but strong “At Dawn,” then went into “Dodante.” The song starts out very simply, with Jim James wailing high over just the drums, and then builds into waves of classic guitar-based rock. It was the perfect way to start off the night, using that tried and true theory of tension and release. They then went into their current single, “Off the Record,” stretching out their legs on the second-half jam, which is inexcusably cut off by some radio stations. They went back to the tension and release in the next song, “One Big Holiday.”

I had never seen MMJ before and they totally fulfilled my expectations. I will not miss then again. Coupled with the overall quality of the set , James is now one of my favorite performers. It looked like he and the rest of the band were having a blast on stage, and that always carries over to the audience. At times they had a huge sound, somewhere in between the Allman Brothers and Radiohead (if you can imagine that). They are a band that has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. Their sound is based in American roots music but still captures that modern sense of longing for something more. The music asks, “Where is the soul in today‘s world?” and then provides it in big doses. Once they had built the energy up, you were on board for a real ride. They closed out the show with “Wordless Chorus,”Anytime,” and messed around with “Run Thru” for a while. They left me wanting more.

After the last notes had faded from the room, we walked out into the concourse to check out the Pearl Jam crowd that was now assembling. It looked to be your usual big rock show crowd. Some of Pearl Jam’s original fans showed upslackers who now have mortgages and babysitters for the night. There was also a large contingent of big rock show people, loyal Loop listeners in their Harley jackets, their wives in jeans too tight and tops too low. They would have been at the show whether it was the Stones, Bon Jovi, or Aerosmith. There was a very small contingent of hippies, probably sold like me on the promise of something greater. Overall there was some diversity to the crowd, but from where we were sitting one group dominated: white guys in their twenties wearing T-shirts and baseball caps. You know … frat boys.

Now I say this as a one-time frat boy, and I can pretty much guarantee that I went to my first Dead show in a T-shirt and baseball cap, got drunk, and screamed “Dude!” at least once. I’m not being judgmental. Frat boy is an easy definition. But I must say that I wasn’t expecting that kind of crowd. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. I had been reading recently about how this whole scene was building up around Pearl Jam, and I think I expected something a little more edgy. Admittedly, the further and further you get away from dynamic points in history like the late 1960s or early 1990s, the more watered-down the message becomes and the more frat boys show up. I’m sure some of those late 1980s Dead shows looked very much the same way to some of the longtime Deadheads.

We took a full lap around the United Center concourse and waited for the taped music to be turned down. When the music finally quieted, everyone scurried back to their seats. We got back just as Pearl Jam began their set. They started with “Severed Hand” and the antiwar hit “World Wide Suicide,” both from their new self-titled release.

Now, in doing my very marginal research for this story, I read some of the postings on the Pearl Jam message boards about this show. Many people commented on the lack of energy in the room …so it wasn’t just me. The show started guitars-a-blazin’ and lights whirling, but most of the 18,000 people in the room just kind of sat there. I kept looking for that one section of the crowd where people were going fucking crazy, but I couldn’t find it. I know that every band can have a bad night or a lame crowd. I had only seen Pearl Jam twice before, at Lollapalooza in 1992 and at the aforementioned Soldier Field show in 1995. Like everyone else my age, I have those classic first three records: Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy. Like many people, Pearl Jam lost me with No Code in 1996, but I for one came back in 2000 with Binaural. I’ve bought ever record since. Does that make me a fan? I’m not sure. I guess if you have to ask if you’re a fan, then you’re probably not. What I’m trying to explain is that I’m pretty familiar with their catalog, but on that night it just wasn’t doing it for me. I sat there trying to figure out if it was the band, the venue, the crowd, or me. Regardless of what “it” was, “it” wasn’t in the room that night. At times the crowd did really get into it, like when they played classic singles like “Animal,” Even Flow,” and “Better Man.” Maybe the frat boys and the Loop listeners weren’t familiar with anything post Vitalogy? The crowd only seemed to get into the songs they knew. I know this is no different from any mass consumption rock show, but the variances in the emotions of the crowd seemed so wide that night. At one point they would take over the vocals from Eddie Vedder, as they did on “Better Man.” Then when the band busted into a cover of the English Beat’s “Save It For Later,” they just sat there asking themselves, “What this?”

They finished off the first set with “Why Go” off of Ten. With the crowd chanting the chorus of “Why go home?” it was a great way to end the first set. Over all they played a 20-song set, a full Whitman’s Sampler of the last 15 years of their career. (A complete set list follows this review.) They came back for two extended encores, which to me seemed like an entire 12 song second set. The band finished off the first encore with Ten classics “Once” and “Alive,” which brought the total songs they played from their first album to six.

The chorus of “Alive” has always been pretty poignant to me. In 1991 it meant, “Look at me. Don’t ignore me!” It was the polite way of saying, “Here we are now. Entertain us!” Fifteen years later that same chorus sounded much more victorious. “ Hey … I … Oh. Oh. I’m still alive!” In a way, I think those words sum up Pearl Jam as a band. Their early 1990s contemporaries are all either dead, broken up, or playing small clubs. But Pearl Jam, they’re still alive.

The second encore ended with the Mother Love Bone song “Crown of Thorns,” Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World,” and the band’s traditional closer, “Yellow Ledbetter.” The crowd left feeling like they got their money’s worth, but I was left wanting.

Even though I wasn’t that impressed with them that night, I believe that Pearl Jam is a vibrant band that is still producing interesting music. Sure it isn’t the most challenging music, but sometimes you don’t feel like being challenged. Always being challenged is exhausting. That’s why there’s classic rock, which is a pretty apt definition of Pearl Jam’s music. It’s not a bad thing. Who doesn’t like classic rock? More than their music, I will always respect Pearl Jam for how they go about their business and for standing up for what is right. I hope these are “classic” themes also. They have spent the last decade in a cultural wilderness, standing up for political causes, bypassing much of the mainstream media, and dealing directly with their fan base. They should be admired and supported for doing so.

Like the Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam was not the best band of their generation, but they persevered and grew to represent that generation, making interesting music along the way. I can live with Pearl Jam representing my generation to a younger audience. They wouldn’t be my first choice, but that isn’t the kind of choice you get to make. Cultural forces beyond your control make that decision for you. When a band like Pearl Jam or the Grateful Dead grows to represent something more than just a band, it’s hard to judge them solely on the music. If I were to do so, then My Morning Jacket was the better band that night. But in a live setting it’s impossible to separate the singer from the song. I respect Pearl Jam for what they do and how they do it, and for those reasons I will see them again. I will hope for a better crowd, a better venue, and to experience that sense of something greater than the music.

My Morning Jacket, 5/17/06, Chicago, IL

  1. At Dawn
  2. Dondante
  3. Off the Record
  4. One Big Holiday
  5. O Is the One That Is Real
  6. Wordless Chorus
  7. Anytime

Pearl Jam, 5/17/06, Chicago, IL

Set 1:

  1. Severed Hand
  2. World Wide Suicide
  3. Life Wasted
  4. Animal
  5. Marker in the Sand
  6. Do the Evolution
  7. Whipping
  8. 1/2 Full
  9. I Am Mine
  10. Even Flow
  11. Gone
  12. Insignificance
  13. Better Man
  14. Save It for Later
  15. Down
  16. Garden
  17. Inside Job
  18. Lukin
  19. Why Go

Encore 1:

  1. Wasted Reprise
  2. Man of the Hour
  3. Footsteps
  4. Once
  5. Alive

Encore 2:

  1. Last Kiss
  2. Last Exit
  3. Glorified G
  4. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
  5. Crown of Thorns
  6. Rockin’ in the Free World
  7. Yellow Ledbetter

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