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On Stage: Pearl Jam in St. Paul

I’ll never forget my first Pearl Jam show; I can remember it like it was last Saturday. OK, it was last Saturday. Which is crazy, because my wife is a huge fan of Eddie Vedder – she has always adored Pearl Jam. Despite our mutual love of the band, neither one of us had ever experienced their legendary live show.

Rewind to 2014, Lightning Bolt had recently been released and Pearl Jam were playing in Detroit for the first time since Monica and I met. And it was at Joe Louis Arena, then still home to our beloved Red Wings. We egregiously missed that show at the Joe. So, when PJ announced their 2023 tour through the middle of the country, it was time to right that wrong. We chose St. Paul. With it being our first pilgrimage, we were fittingly bivouacked at the Celeste Hotel, a converted convent, with a bunch of other Pearl Jam acolytes. Breakfast on Saturday morning was like Pearl Jam sleep-away camp.

Monica checks out the merch trailer

We went on the second night in St. Paul, and the most unexpectedly enjoyable part of this trip was buying merch the afternoon before the show. We wandered over to the venue early to have a look at the Mississippi River, and the merch presale. It took a sec, but we grocked that the half-mile line snaking around the building wasn’t general admission fans waiting to stake out their spot in the pit – it was for merch. It was in that relentlessly long line and 90° heat that we were welcomed into the 10 Club. Three hours later, Dan from Davis, CA and his daughter Brooke, along with Jim from Palos Verdes, CA had become our new best friends. The camaraderie and good will amongst Pearl Jam fans is beautiful and inspiring. 

I knew I was in for quite a different experience than I anticipated when they opened with “Pendulum” off of 2013’s Lightning Bolt. Our new friend Dan, an old hand off the Pearl Jam ranch, declared it their “most eclectic and eccentric set ever.” The entire arena was enraptured from the drop of the puck. Jeff Ament’s haunting bass line in “Pendulum” along with Stone’s crisp, biting lead set the table for Eddie’s first lament. They were barely getting started.

The band appear to be pacing themselves, as they (and me) are moving into their 60s. They’re starting their set seated on this tour, playing five of their more nuanced numbers.  After opening with what Dan argued is their “darkest, spookiest song,” it was nice to get what he referred to as the “warm hug” of “Elderly Woman” off Vs. But I was most ecstatic when “Daughter” was included in that portion of the set. Eddie has two daughters (who were in attendance with their mom, Eddie’s wife Jill), but this song has special resonance for anyone who has children. And I love Mike McCready’s solo.

Here’s a unique perspective – a bit of “Daughter” from the front row, and then the same bit from behind the stage. (video courtesy of Dan Schneider)

After beginning the set in their lawn chairs, the guys kicked hard into the rest of the evening as they tore into “Do the Evolution,” a Stone Gossard tune on which he chokes off some tasty lead guitar. Monica and I were getting ramped up on this one, as you can tell from the video. It’s got one of my favorite lines, “I am the first mammal to wear pants.” It’s evolution, baby! Yeah.

One of the things that I dig most about Pearl Jam, and what keeps them relevant not only to their fans but to the world, is that they continue to create and release outstanding material that’s the equal of their beloved early stuff (which is some 30 years old by now). 2020’s Gigaton is their most recent and one of their strongest releases this century. I would’ve liked to have heard more from Gigaton, but I was stoked for “Whoever Said,” which Eddie dedicated to Twins all-time great Joe Mauer, who was hanging in a suite just below us.

An undisputed highlight of this show came at about the halfway point. After twelve songs, they’d dipped into eight of their eleven albums (eventually playing at least one song off every record). They pulled out the heavy artillery with “Even Flow,” one of their signature tunes off the massive debut album Ten. This was peak McCready, with an extended solo, the majority of which he played behind his head (just like Jake Kiszka from Greta Van Fleet, wink-wink). After the song, Eddie asked him, “When did you start to play like that? Did it scare you?” To which Mike replied, “I’m scared now.”

Dan reports that, after McCready confessed his fear, Dan yelled, “We love you Mike!” The crowd in the pit roared, and Mike replied, “I’m not scared anymore.” It was a great moment, and deserves another view of his solo, from the third row. (video courtesy of Dan Schneider)

“Corduroy,” a favorite radio cut from Vitalogy, always sounds like it would be right at home on Yield. Eddie was in full-on rock god mode, with his Telecaster slung low and the strobe lights pumping. There’s a great triple-guitar moment with Stone, Mike & Eddie in the lead-out, as McCready winds out another extended jam.

Their cover of teen-death anthem “Last Kiss,” popularized by J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers is surprisingly PJ’s highest charting single on the Billboard Hot 100 (great trivia question). I grew up on AM-radio fodder like “Teen Angel” and “Seasons in the Sun,” and it’s perfect for Eddie’s vocal style. Dan was glad they played it to the folks sitting behind the stage and declared it “not his favorite.”

I’m told that they don’t do “Jeremy” live very often, so I was psyched to hear Ament’s signature bass line and the chiming harmonics of the intro. This is a classic vocal from Eddie, but at this point he lets the crowd handle some of the woos and oh-oh-whoas, to save some tear on his vocal cords. McCready finesses the whammy bar to bring this one home.

Now, “Better Man” would’ve been my guess as their highest-charting song (except, turns out it was never released as a single). I love the story producer Brendan O’Brien tells about declaring the song a hit when he first heard it, which pissed Eddie off. O’Brien claims he “may have” sabotaged the original recording, so Eddie couldn’t give it away to a benefit record. Great to hear it live. She loves him!

The set list called for “Alive” as the closing number, but the band huddled just before and there was obviously some controversy. This mid-tempo grinder got played seemingly to death by modern-rock radio in the ’90s, but with the crowd belting out the anthemic chorus, and McCready once again winding out an epic rock solo, boy… it’s still alive. Yeah, uh-huh.

No visit to the Twin Cities would be complete without a visit to Paisley Park, so it made perfect sense to close with “Purple Rain.” (Whoever lobbied for this in the band huddle was spot on.) Plus it gave them an opportunity to showcase utility man Josh Klinghoffer on vocals and guitar, and to bring up Jessica Dobson, who fronts the evening’s opening act, Deep Sea Diver (very cool – look up their track “Impossible Weight”).

I love Eddie’s relationship with their audience. Off the top he said, “This night feels like a night of friends. I’m not quite sure what that means yet.” He proceeded to introduce us to a number of the band’s friends, in addition to Joe Mauer (and Kevin?). Eddie brought the guy who first booked them into Minneapolis indie club First Avenue (7th St Entry) up on stage, and dedicated a solo cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” to a little local boy named Charlie who recently succumbed in his battle with an insidious dermatological disease. All of it genuine, no grandstanding. Just a piece of his heart.

Monica and I are new friends too. Not only with Dan and Brooke and Jim, but with the Pearl Jam community and, by the transitive property, Eddie and Stone and Jeff and Mike and Matt (and Boom and Josh). Late to the party, but soaking up as much as we can. These guys are still on top of their game.

Following is a scrapbook of photos from the day for you to dig on:

St Paul on the Mississippi River (courtesy Dan Schneider)
Merch trailer detail (note the viking-themed St Paul poster)
Monica in the merch line (best 3-hour wait ever!)
I scored a sweet day-of shirt
Herb Brooks, arms raised in a V (St Paul native & 1980 USA hockey coach)
Jim and his sister at the show (courtesy Jim from Palos Verdes)
Dan and his daughter Brooke at the show (courtesy Dan from Davis)
Jeff, Matt, Eddie, and Stone getting the foam finger (courtesy Dan Schneider)
The seated gentlemen during “Daughter” (courtesy Dan Schneider)
Eddie shines his pick-guard spotlight around the arena (courtesy Dan Schneider)
Eddie & his Tele (courtesy Dan Schneider)
Eddie atop the loudspeaker
Y’know, McCready does look scared (courtesy Dan Schneider)
2 September set list (courtesy Dan Schneider)
2 September set list annotated (courtesy Dan Schneider)

Final thought: Will my first show be my only show? Hmmm…

Join the 10 Club on pearljam.com

Honestly, this set list makes a great play list. Who am I to question the hand of the deity? I recommend listening to the whole thing all the way through, on headphones, singing at the top of your lungs.

Read on, to find out what happened next

On Stage: Pearl Jam in Chicago


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