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Three and fifteen minutes. Pearl Jam. Bloody hell. While their studio output has been, to put it generously, patchy since the release of 1998’s Yield, Eddie Vedder et al. remain an incendiary, uplifting and intense prospect in their natural home, live. Their celebratory show at Milton Keynes National Bowl in England was the final gig of their current European tour in support of their latest album Lightning Bolt. The event was transcendental and extraordinary. Bar none, the best Pearl Jam gig this writer has had the pleasure of attending. The concert did, however, also display how Pearl Jam have become a heritage act whose newer material is more or less discarded in favour of the more loved and, let’s face it, better older material.
Appearing just after 19.40, the band were received with rapturous adulation from the enormous audience in the Milton Keynes National Bowl upon their arrival onstage. Immediately launching into “Pendulum”, a new, subdued track from Lightning Bolt, you notice that the band have aged gracefully by accepting getting older rather than battling against age through attempting to continue to look relevant and cool alá U2 or clinging to the fashion of their youth alá Robert Smith of The Cure. Drummer Matt Cameron and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard in fact look like blokes that live down the street from you, they could be teachers or lawyers or librarians. In contrast, bassist Jeff Ament looks like your cool uncle. He’s the guy that runs the local skate-park and runs campaigns to keep at risk youths off the street. Mike McCready, lead guitarist, looks weathered. Liver spots dot his forehead and his jowls vibrate hypnotically with each power chord and Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque solo. Lead singer Eddie Vedder kind of looks like a carpenter, or a lumberjack, or a farmer. Maybe a bit like Neil Young’s cooler, younger brother.
After “Pendulum”, the band work their way through “Alive” b-side, “Wash”, and the classics “Nothingman” and “Black” from 1994’s Vitalogy and 1991’s Ten respectively. The crowd is already fully invested, singing every lyric and sitting squarely in the palm of the band’s collective hand. It shows the commitment and relationship between the band and it’s audience when the crowd begin singing the “We Belong Together” tag during “Black” before Eddie has a chance to begin. Normally Pearl Jam begin with a soft song and then go straight into their heavier material. With the set beginning with four more laid back numbers, clearly it’s going to be a long night.
The band then blast through “Go”, “Brain of J.”, “Comatose”, “Save You”, “Hail, Hail”, “Mind Your Manners” and “Do The Evolution”. It is unrelenting. There’s crotch cams, Jeff and Mike feeding each other plectra and Eddie admonishing a crowd surfer for being a little too rotund and suggesting he should, “Keep his feet on the ground and his food on his plate.” “Mind Your Manners” is the lead single from Lightning Bolt and while it sounded limp and over produced on record, it is rescued by the live setting, where the band capture the energy of the song perfectly. It also benefits from the momentum created by the better material preceding and following it.
There’s a brief lull as the band plod through the pedestrian “Got Some” from 2009’s Backspacer and the title track from Lightning Bolt. There’s nothing particularly wrong with these songs, there’s just not much right with them either. “Nothing As It Seems” from 2000’s Binaural is played for the first time in Europe in 14 years and dedicated to “strangers”, while “Given To Fly”, “Corduroy”, “Even Flow”, “Spin The Black Circle” and “Rearviewmirror” are typically incendiary. Again the issue is with the newer material as the cheesy 80s cock rock balladery of “Sirens” and the lame blues stomp of “Let The Records Play”, both from Lightning Bolt, temporarily derail the gig’s momentum. Still, it’s a perfect time to go for a piss and grab an over priced beer.
The real magic is saved for the encores. “Yellow Moon” is dedicated to Matt’s brother Pete, who is in attendance and celebrating his birthday and Simon Townshend, The Who’s Pete Townshend’s brother, joins the band for Simon’s own song, “I’m The Answer”. George Harrison’s son Dhani joins the band for a touching version of The Beatles’ “Rain” and the band perform typically astounding versions of “Betterman”, “Jeremy””, “Porch”, and “Footsteps”. “War” by Edwyn Starr is tagged to “Daughter” during which Eddie Vedder makes a typically impassioned plea to people to stop supporting wars. His continued, intrinsic commitment to social change is infectious and it would take someone completely lacking in empathy and sympathy not to get swept up in his expletive laden speech.
Pearl Jam: Daughter and War Rant Live @ Milton Keynes 11/07/2014
Despite all these obvious high points, the absolute zenith of the concert comes during the first encore. Andrew Wood was the front-man of legendary Seattle band Mother Love Bone. Stone and Jeff were in Mother Love Bone before Pearl Jam. Andrew died in 1990 at the age of 24, but before this he wrote one of the most accomplished and ambitious rock ballads ever. Titled “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns”, the song is an eight minute epic and it’s appearance in Milton Keynes is only the twelfth time that Pearl Jam have performed it live in it’s entirety. A special and near unique moment, it serves as the peak of the concert and replaces “Yellow Ledbetter” as the typical emotional high point of a typical Pearl Jam concert.
Pearl Jam: Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thornes (Mother Love Bone) Live @ Milton Keynes 11/07/2014
By the time the band steamroll through “Alive” and an incendiary cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World”, three hours and fifteen minutes has gone by in a blink. It’s testament to Pearl Jam’s enduring appeal that even after this running time, people want more. Shouts ring out from the crowd for “Yellow Ledbetter” and “one more tune”. The only remaining issue is that this setlist could, by and large, have been played in 2000 virtually unchanged, which highlights Pearl Jam’s inability to match the material they wrote with apparent ease during their 90s heyday. Perhaps that doesn’t matter though when the show is this good. I saw Pearl Jam for the first time in 2000 when I was fifteen years old. It was the first time music fully took me out of the staid, mundane present and to somewhere else, somewhere ethereal. Now, older, wiser but more cynical and skeptical, I had thought that that feeling was lost forever, but on Friday night Pearl Jam made me feel fifteen again. They will until the day I die.
Pearl Jam Setlist Live @ Milton Keynes 11/07/2014
06. Brain Of J
08. Save You (for Rabbit)
09. Hail Hail
10. Mind Your Manners
11. Do The Evolution
12. Got Some
13. Lightning Bolt
14. Nothing As It Seems
15. Given To Fly
18. Even Flow
19. Let The Records Play
20. Spin The Black Circle
Encore Break 1
22. Yellow Moon
23. I’m The Answer w/ Simon Townshend-(Simon Townshend)
25. Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns-(Mother Love Bone, A. Wood)
26. Believe You Me (one verse as a sort of tag on “Crown”)
27. Better Man/Save It For Later-(Charley, Cox, Morton, Steele, Wakeling)
Encore Break 2
31. Rain w/ Dhani Harrison-(Lennon, McCartney)
32. Daughter/War-(Whitfield, Strong)
35. Rockin’ In The Free World w/ members of the band “Off!” & Ray Cameron-(Young)