Wrigley Field, Saturday August 20, 2016
There was no mistaking the joy of lifelong fan Eddie Vedder at playing the home turf of his beloved Chicago Cubs. From the opening notes of “Low Light” to the solo encore three hours later of the hopeful love-letter “All the Way,” it was clear even without the cap and jersey. Part of Vedder had shed his rock star façade and reverted to the eight year-old boy who used to sit in the right field bleachers heckling fans in the left field bleachers. After a stream of thanks to the club during Pearl Jam’s third encore, Vedder even brought out his favorite ballplayer as a special guest. Former right fielder José Cardenal sang with Vedder as images of baseball icon Ernie Banks flashed on jumbotron screens, recalling the late Mr. Cub’s appearance the last time Vedder played center field with his bandmates at Wrigley Field.
The celebration wasn’t all about baseball, though. The soggy day in Chicago had given way to a beautiful summer evening, much to the relief of anyone who experienced the apocalyptic weather during the band’s 2013 visit to the park. Fans on the field had reason to be especially grateful to not to be hunkered down like soggy sardines in the fallout shelters under the bleachers for hours.
After crafting majestic unison with the audience during “Release” from debut album Ten, Vedder expressed his gratitude to Mother Nature. “Last time was a once in a lifetime experience … When I saw the lightning, I hoped it was a once in a lifetime experience,” he recalled. “Nature’s working with us tonight. You’ve earned it.” A cover of the Beatles’ “Rain” underscored the point. Jeff Ament’s bass bubbled and bounced to the familiar Paul McCartney part, Matt Cameron swung madly through Ringo’s fills, and Boom Gaspar’s Hammond B3 organ made it feel like church.
The generous 34-song set list stretched just past three hours, and included something for every type of Pearl Jam fan. The Neil Young-influenced regret of “Better Man” vanished into celebration as tens of thousands sang along to every word. The bracing punk of “Do the Evolution” sent an electrical charge through the massive crowd. Newer material like “Mind Your Manners” was eagerly received alongside older favorites like “Corduroy.” The band’s latest album Lightning Bolt was on the verge of release when Pearl Jam last visited Wrigley Field. This time, fans were familiar and ready for the title cut, punctuated by strobing, zig-zag light fixtures.
“Join us,” coaxed Vedder after beginning the acoustic waltz of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” as a duet with guitarist Stone Gossard. The invitation was hardly necessary, because the sold-out crowd was already with the band, singing every note.
Vedder created another bonding moment later, scanning t-shirts of fans in the front row. One sported a shirt naming “Janet F—ing Weiss” of Sleater-Kinney. “She’s a badass,” said Vedder. Nearby, another fan wore a Whitesnake t-shirt. “Is that ironic,” asked Vedder with a laugh. “I don’t know what the f— that’s about.” When the fan pointed to guitarist Mike McCready, Vedder replied, “Don’t blame that on McCready … I hope you’ve already got a good nickname, because otherwise from now on you’ll be known as Mr. Whitesnake.”
Next, he singled out a woman wearing the message “unf—withable.” “My daughter’s in the audience tonight,” said Vedder, with nieces also in attendance. “Girls, ladies … hey, men, too – let’s all be unf—withable.”
Ament’s fretless bass was featured on “Daughter,” and Vedder expanded the song’s coda to include a snippet of anti-establishment anthem “W.M.A.” Ament did careening, spinning leaps across the stage as Vedder raced from the right field to left field ends of the stage during “Alive.” The thunder and chime of Ament’s 12-string bass filled the ballpark during “Jeremy.”
McCready lurched and pogoed around his side of the stage with the zeal of a punk rocker or youthful Rick Nielsen. Appropriately, the band included a cover of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” that sent the crowd into a frenzy to match McCready’s. Vedder raised his hands like an evangelist to bless the crowd while booming, “we’re all all right.” McCready lashed into his guitar for the powerful peak of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” collapsing to the stage and smashing his battered instrument on the floor, tearing at the strings and summoning ferocious feedback.
After searching through the crowd, a military veteran named Kyle Johnson and his girlfriend Amy were given special seats on the stage for “Just Breathe.” Johnson made the most of the moment and proposed. Happily, Amy said yes. The pair were shown on the big screen singing to each other, and they engulfed Vedder in an emotional hug afterward. The band dedicated the Ramones’ “I Believe in Miracles” to the pair.
Vedder described the solidarity and family spirit among traveling musicians, saying that Canadian band The Tragically Hip were brothers-in-arms who were home in Kingston, Ontario playing the last night of their final run. “Gord Downie, we love you,” said Vedder, praising Downie’s courage in the face of terminal brain cancer. “We want to take the energy from our gathering here, and send it to their gathering up there.”
Another riveting moment occurred when the band brought longtime friend Steve Gleason on stage to introduce “Inside Job.” A paraplegic bound to his wheelchair, Gleason illustrated the power of positivity while describing his love for the band and the song. “How we choose to feel is how we are, and personally, I feel f—ing awesome,” he said, speaking with the aid of his computer.
Vedder cited his native roots often. He recalled younger days with a bottle of white wine and a cassette Walkman, sitting on the rocks by Lake Michigan to watch the water and the stars. “There was a whole world of possibilities, but what were the options,” he said, questioning. The band then broke into Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” McCready took the elegant beauty of David Gilmour’s solos and interpreted them in a way that spoke to the tension and uncertainty of youth.
“I’m not just talking to hear my own voice,” said Vedder as the evening wound down. “I’m talking because we have to leave, and I don’t want to.” The set ended with the communal surge of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” The spirit was strong enough to shake any remaining clouds from the sky.
-Reviewed by Jeff Elbel, Photos by Curt Baran.