The rolling pastures of Wisconsin played home to over 30,000 Pearl Jam superfans over Labor Day weekend, where those devoted enough to fly to the middle of nowhere for their favorite band were witness to a historical, unforgettable set of performances from Queens of the Stone Age, The Strokes, Mudhoney, Liam Finn, Glen Hansard and many more – including an extremely rare onstage reunion of Temple of the Dog.
Pearl Jam’s performances, while generally known to be marathon-style sets of ever-changing material and high energy, were spectacularly over-the-top shows that mined rare & beloved songs and featured a forehead-smacking number of special guest performances. The first night of the band’s 20th anniversary concerts at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre was a 2 ½-hour, 28-song set specifically for the diehards, a celebration and exhumation of a staggering number of rare gems and collaborations that floored even the most seasoned PJ show attendee. The second night turned the heat up even higher with a 33 song, 3-plus hour performance that, as an unwavering Pearl Jam fan for a solid two decades can vouch for, was about as perfect and beautiful as any fan could ask for.
On Day One, “chance of showers” became a 10am downpour that didn’t cease until roughly 3pm, by which point the Alpine Valley area was throughly soaked, the steep angle of the lawn making for tricky footwork as fans vied for positioning before nightfall. Clearer skies on Sunday made for much more animated enthusiasm among fans and band, but the music never suffered despite the rain.
I find my mind returning time and again to Glen Hansard (of The Frames & Swell Season), an unassuming and massively talented Irishman who drove a beat-up old pickup truck from Chicago up to play an opening slot at the show. The truck broke down 7 times along the way, but by damnit, he made it, and laid his heart bare for the 1500 or so poncho’d & bagged in attendance.
On the first day, there was an adorable awkwardness in his requesting of a female member of the audience to sing his Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” with him – but when none promptly offered their efforts, a portly young man took to the stage from the front row and gave a powerfully gorgeous version of the set-closer.
And the next day, Eddie showed up for an encore performance of the same track. Wrecking ball, meet chest.
Glen Hansard is a name to keep tucked in the heart for those moments when your thoughts are well insulated from straying towards the one that got away, and your bro-friends are off doing other things. His soul is open, his earnest delivery a thing to make grown men weep at their own flaccid weakness of character as he funnels all of himself into the moment.
Just like Liam. Only not at all like Liam. Mr. Finn, son of Neil, a live wire of energy and heart throughout his performance that followed Hansard’s, blew minds from the first distorted chord with an instrumental loop-pedal and drum assault of Pearl Jam’s “Habit” before the rest of his band joined him for a fantastic set under the breaking clouds.
Finn would get his full “Habit” fix the next night during PJ’s set – but we’ll get to that in just a bit.
A Pearl Jam museum documenting the band’s rise and legacy was available for fans escaping the rain, while the unwavering stuck it out in the elements for early sets from Star Anna, The New No. 2, Joseph Arthur and the aforementioned.
Half of Pearl Jam (Matt Cameron, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready) joined Joseph Arthur onstage, providing backing support for the closing portion of his downtempo yet impressive set, including a stirring rendition of “In The Sun”.
The main stage opened up for Mudhoney in the six o’clock hour, with the Seattle stalwarts keeping the torch burning bright through a strong set of sneering rock blasts. Through both performances they made sure to include “Touch Me I’m Sick,” a track that a Pearl Jam-infused fictional band named Citizen Dick covered a variation on for the 1992 film Singles. Closing their performance with a searing take on Black Flag’s “Fix Me,” the band left a ringing impression on those who’d put in the effort to experience their offerings. At one point, guitarist Steve Turner teased a riff of Pearl Jam’s “Hard To Imagine,” sending ripples of goosebumps through the crowd at the mere suggestion of the rare favorite.
That’s just the way the music flowed throughout the weekend; Pearl Jam was always on the mind, and whether through collaborations or partial covers sprinkled throughout the various performances, the sense of community, celebration and love was a constant among all performers.
Put away the patchouli – we’re not talking hippie flower fests here. Never was this more clear than when desert monsters Queens of the Stone Age tore through a hits-ridden set early Saturday night. Opener “Millionaire” packed a different sort of punch with frontman Joshua Homme on vocals, eschewing the studio-version rabid screaming of his former bandmate for a deep-toned vocal groove.
The criminally-underpopulated floor area was only half full for Queens’ set each day, but the enthusiasm of those in attendance left no gaps. The band had no ideas of corner cutting, either, with each seasoned member filling respective roles on ten; Troy Van Leeuwen’s energized elegance on guitar, Dean Fertita’s brooding mastery of the keys and rhythm guitar, Michael Shuman’s furiously impassioned bass immersion, Joey Castillo’s metronomic pulverization, and, of course, Homme’s bluesy power-groove arsenal, soaked in rooster-strut cool.
Josh paid lip service to PJ guitarist Stone Gossard, who had enough faith in the Viking Ginge and his merry band of miscreants back in the late ’90s to put out their first album on his label Loose Groove Records. And later, when Homme was looking to reissue the out-of-print debut, Gossard simply handed him the rights. That’s what brought QOTSA to Wisconsin – a testament to loyalty and friendship, with a side of hip-hijacking desert-soul groove Rock.
Vedder joined for a little cowbell session on “Little Sister” Sunday evening, while “Make It Witchu” was as smooth as a sunny Summer drive with a gorgeous girl by your side, headed to a seedy motel to infiltrate each other’s bodies. And when Homme announced the late-set rarity “The Fun Machine Took a Shit And Died,” I’ll fanboyishly cop to squealing like a goddamned teenage piglet from center floor. “Don’t get excited yet,” Josh warned with a smirk, “This might go terribly wrong.”
If “wrong” amounts to a broken-robot time-shifting jitterbug of awesome that launches from the studio version like a kaleidoscopically swirling funhouse of doom, then I don’t want to be right, my friends. I never, ever want to be fucking right.
“Monsters In The Parasol” featured a slower, more minor-key delivery than as is standard, while a dark & bluesy jam after a funktified “Burn The Witch” reminded fans that the band has quite a bit of material up their collective sleeve that has yet to see the light of release. With a new album in the cauldron, every diversion from the norm in performance was savored as possible chemtrails from recent studio sessions.
Castillo utterly owned “Sky is Falling,” a thundering percussive assault with cascading melody. Closing with “No One Knows,” guitarists Troy and Dean synchronized on the strings for a haunting, Halloween-theme effects backdrop, one a Vegas shark dressed to the nines, the other a stylistically missing member in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club who appears downright possessed by the music.
Though they’re comparatively young chaps with more proving ground ahead of them than Queens, The Strokes followed Palm Desert’s finest with two hits-focused sets that featured repeated performances of “Take It Or Leave It” and “Hard To Explain,” among others.
Frontman Julian Casablancas’ awkward conversation, goofy within his street-grime New York couth, was a bit of an odd icebreaker between the frigid energy between bandmembers onstage, but the collective delivered a surprisingly sharp performance on both nights.
The second take of highlight jam “New York City Cops” was guested on by Homme, who returned to the stage to deafening fanfare for a blasting little number – he even handled the solo with standard aplomb. As the song wound down, Julian put Homme on the spot to sing the final line. He obliged, with a “When in Rome” look on his mug.
The strength behind “Taken For a Fool” was formidable, Casablancas’ growly lead finally taking full flight. It may also have had a bit to do with the fact that his hero, Eddie Vedder, guested twice on the high-energy “Juicebox,” taking lead on two full verses and choruses. Afterward, drummer Fabrizio Moretti ran from behind the drumkit to hug the singer in a moment of anti-rock star adulation that was just downright cuddly.
Casablancas lamented after both performances (the second being a far more intense performance) that Vedder sings the song “so much better than I do.” He may be right, but their set-closing swing-dancer of “Last Night” had everyone dancing, and that was all Strokes-earned enthusiasm.
Jittery nerves of anticipation became wires of electric adrenaline once the lights dimmed and Philip Glass’ cinematically exhilarating “Metamorphosis 2” intro music signaled Pearl Jam’s arrival onstage. Pausing to take in the moment before stepping to the mic, Eddie Vedder – bathed in blue light – reached his hands outward and upward, as if to feel the ecstatic energy of the crowd as the band eased into Ten closer “Release,” a sacred show-opener among diehards.
These sets were clearly designed to reward the hardcore. Each night’s setlist was one for the record books of unpredictability, with B-sides and irregular tracks making appearances faster than fans could absorb just what the hell was happening. Whoa, a wailing cover of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me”? “Pilate”?! Holy shit, “Push Me Pull Me” and “Breath”! Wait, isn’t “Setting Forth” an Into The Wild Vedder solo jam? A funked-up “No Way”! No fucking way!
Between 9pm and midnight, eyes were wide and jaws were floored in special moments topped by amazing moments and iced by unbelievable ones. This was helped in no small part by cameos from at least a half-dozen performers during the band’s 140-minute set on Saturday night, including a third-verse appearance in “Not for You” from Julian Casablancas, and a total curveball harmony-fest with Josh Homme on “In the Moonlight”. Liam Finn also featured on a haunting-groove rendition of “Education,” but would return the next night for a far more essential purpose – saving Vedder’s vocal chords on the guttural-screams of “Habit”. Glen Hansard, Joseph Arthur and Finn all provided backing vocals as well on various tracks, most notably a stuttered but welcomed version of No Code live rarity “Who You Are”.
Sunday night was just as heavy on the guests, with John Doe stepping up for a take on his own “New World,” “Sonic Reducer” with Mark Arm & Steve Turner of Mudhoney, and Julian returning for a searing take on “Red Mosquito” that found the Strokes frontman wailing the refrain “I was bitten, must’ve been the devil” under Vedder’s closing lines, “If I had known then what I know now…”
Glan Hansard returned to the stage for shared vocal duties on No Code rarity “Smile,” and the song of longing must’ve struck home particularly hard for the man, who had tweeted the previous day that, despite the incredible experience of traveling to and playing PJ20, he was feeling homesick for his native Ireland. Not a forlorn trace could be found on his face Sunday night, however, as he and Vedder volleyed over the “I miss you already…” chorus, beaming with pride and appreciation. If reality were an Alex Grey painting, we would’ve all been able to see blasting electric-blue bursts of love radiating from the man’s head and heart. He was really there, entirely in the moment, thrilled to be living the experience. From the floor, seats and lawn, we collectively empathized.
The end of gutpunch heartbreak ballad “Black” was astounding, Vedder improvising a “Poor little girl…” vocal meandering that held the 20,000 strong crowd at forward-leaning tiptoes attention. Bathed in red light, the band slowly eased out of the song, but the crowd wasn’t ready to let go. We carried the final “do do do do do do do” vocal part for a full half minute without the band, a haunting and beautiful bit of crowd collaboration. Listening back to the show now, it’s hard to fight the chest hitching up and the dancing nerves as that final 30-40 seconds unfolds.
Closing out the main set with a buoyant and surprisingly well-received “Jeremy,” the band let it be known simply by proxy of song selection that we had quite a long night ahead of us. Returning to the stage solo, Vedder delivered a song on acoustic that he’d written just hours prior in the day, a tribute to sticking through the tough times to get to the good. Check it out below:
After a moment of thanks for longtime producer Brendan O’Brien and an uplifting version of “Just Breathe,” the poignancy of Vitalogy track “Nothingman” flipped the mood and mined more than a few tears from those unfortunate enough to relate.
Vedder took a moment to lament the closing of over 3,000 independent record stores in the past decade, comparing those few remaining as the last living Giving Trees. He implored us all to “water” our local record store tree, to “sit under its shade” and enjoy its unique fruits. This, of course, led to a blistering “Spin The Black Circle,” prefaced with a roaring “Keep vinyl alive!” Electrified with the song’s thousand-mile-an-hour intensity, McCready ran laps around the stage throughout the entire song. Literally. He ran in giant circles for over three minutes.
The cat had gotten out of the bag a full day prior on the big surprise of the weekend, but when Chris Cornell arrived onstage for a live reunion of Temple of the Dog on Saturday night, the reaction was a deafening collective of screaming excitement which made those crazy bitches losing their minds on Oprah’s show for their free gifts look like Tibetan monks by comparison.
The reunited TOTD honored Mother Love Bone’s glam-blasting place as a predecessor to Pearl Jam with a cover of “Stardog Champion”. And by “cover,” I don’t mean a half-assed run through that skimped on effort for the sake of nostalgia. No, this was not the Cornell of the Timbaland sessions, but a retrenched man who’s quite clearly been fine-tuning his instrument while putting together a new album with Soundgarden. His inimitable wail never faltered, never hinted at the fact that a man in his late forties was utterly nailing vocal parts meant for a twentysomething firebreather who still felt – and acted – immortal.
After a deeply moving “Say Hello To Heaven” – without a single note missed, I might add – and supremely strong “Reach Down” from the TOTD sessions, Vedder rejoined Cornell and his bandmates for the vocal collaboration of “Hunger Strike”. The two men seemed to focus primarily on one another, facing one other as each laid out their verse. Witnessing the two men singing together, longtime friends and rare stage-sharing performers, was an exhilarating experience for anyone in the crowd who’s invested enough of themselves into the music to develop a true gravity for the music unfolding before them. Which, in effect, would mean just about everyone in attendance.
After a second take on “Hunger Strike,” Cornell strapped on an acoustic for a quiet, gorgeous rendition of slow-burner “Call Me a Dog” (Stone watched from sidestage, dancing by himself). Fans were also treated to a lovely “All Night Thing,” and another performance of slow-burn slugger “Reach Down,” with all members giving their all after a flawed rendition the previous night.
Mark Arm and Steve Turner returned for a searing “Sonic Reducer,” with Arm egging on the string-slingers as the song hit its climax: “C’mon! We’ve got three guitarists! We want solos!” The general sense of rounding the final bend had settled in, and all around me the energy intensified at the realization that this incredible weekend was drawing to a close, determined to absorb every ounce of minutia for future recollection.
After thanking the families and crew and unseen crucials for all their years of hard work, Vedder brought out virtually all the day’s performers as well as members of their crew (and SNL alum Will Forte, randomly and awesomely) for a lengthy loose-jam take on Neil Young’s “Rockin In The Free World”. Hugs and arm-in-arm chorus singalongs took place all across the stage, artists and their support beams mingling and sharing mutual appreciations as the extended jam made its way towards a rollicking finish to an unforgettable anniversary weekend.
We thought it was over. Eddie thought it was over. The house lights were up, and the finality of the moment was palpable. Gathering his trademark composition book and giving away the red wine bottle he’d been pulling from all night, Vedder joined the exodus leaving the stage, waving and saying “thank you” to fans. It appeared as if PJ20 had come to a close in the most familial and exuberant of ways.
Then Mike McCready strapped his guitar back on. The band remained while the rest departed. They weren’t finished – and those who’ve been a part of this heart-soaring ride for the past twenty years knew very well that there was but one piece to the puzzle yet to be fit, one final song to complete the culmination of two decades of devotion. And when Vedder looked back over his shoulder and saw his brothers waiting, he knew his work wasn’t done. The icing was still yet to be laid on this remarkable musical feast.
He looked to the crowd, then back to the band, then longingly offstage, where a shower, a few (more) cold ones and an ocean of friends undoubtedly waited to welcome him. Knowing there was only one way to proceed, Pearl Jam’s voice stepped to the mic, and the opening riff of “Yellow Ledbetter” broke the dam of electric anticipation.
We roared our approval. We sang along to the ever-shifting lyrics. We hugged strangers all around us as the band shared heartfelt embraces and laughs during Mike’s full “Star-Spangled Banner” closing tag. We soaked in the final moments of a weekend tattooed on our hearts as if we’d collectively cheated the gods of exhilaration, of heart-brimming excitement and dream-come-true onstage experiences. And when the band took a final bow, we cheered as if we’d never see them again, with two decades’ worth of gratitude collectively pouring out towards a band that’s survived inconceivable hurdles to become stronger than ever, twenty years on.
I don’t expect to experience a musical weekend like this ever again.
Watch a ton of PJ20 guest/collaboration vids not included in this review here.
All photos: Johnny Firecloud