Long before the capacity crowd inside Madison Square Garden brought Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder to tears because they were singing and cheering along to “Better Man” so loud on Friday night (May 21), it was clear this wasn’t going to be just any PJ show. In fact, it became clear this was a special, relentlessly rocking show from the second the lights went down and the veteran Seattle band came out of the gate hard and fast with “Corduroy.” The pace didn’t let up from there.
If there could possibly be a scientific formula for what makes a perfect show, almost every one of those elements were evident at the Garden Friday. Last night of the tour in a famous arena in a big city on weekend night? Check. Exuberant, sold-out crowd? Check. Marathon-length set full of rarities (“Hunger Strike,” “Black Red Yellow”), favorites (“Alive,” “Black”) and great covers (“The Real Me”)? Check. Heck, there was even a section of celebrities in the audience (Matt Damon, Michael Moore, John McEnroe) rocking almost as hard as the fans.
The 34-song, two encore break, two-hour-and-forty-five minute set, which included songs from each of the band’s nine album repertoire except for 2002’s “Riot Act,” was notable also for the five incredibly rare b-sides sprinkled into the mix. “Breath,” from the 1992 “Singles” soundtrack,” nodded to a fan campaign to play that song at PJ’s first Garden gigs back in 1998. “Sweet Lew,” a tribute to New Yorker Kareem Abdul-Jabar, found bassist Jeff Ament taking the mic as Vedder did backup vocals and dribbled a basketball to the beat. Ben Bridwell, lead singer of opening act Band Of Horses, did Chris Cornell’s part proud on the 1991 hit “Hunger Strike” by Pearl Jam/Soundgarden side project Temple Of The Dog.
Pearl Jam’s more oft-played originals, old and new, also got a big reaction. The tender “Just Breathe,” the current single from 2009’s “Backspacer,” got just as big a singalong as 1998’s “Given To Fly.” Vedder put a current events twist on “Daughter” add-on “W.M.A.,” singing “white male Arizonian” instead of the usual “American” after saying his piece against the anti-immigrant laws just passed in that state. 1996’s 62-second punk whiplash “Lukin,” introduced by Vedder as both a new song and another way to skin a cat (“and who is out skinning cats anyway?”) was retooled as a heartbreaking ballad.
The band fittingly brought the night to a close, house lights all the way up, with the three-part knock-out of “Alive,” a raucous cover of MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams,” and a “Yellow Ledbetter” finished off by a “Star Spangled Banner” solo from guitarist Mike McCready before the guys lined up in a row and took a bow.
But the emotional center of the night, easily, was that moment during “Better Man.” Vedder prefaced the tune by telling a story about his first trip to New York City right after Pearl Jam had formed. He’d caught his reflection in a window with the streetscape behind him and was simply in awe that he had made it to New York. Then, standing on the stage of the sold-out Madison Square Garden almost 20 years later, the whole 19,000 member crowd complete took over the singing of his song, giving it everything they had. You might cry too.
Here is Pearl Jam’s May 21, 2010 Madison Square Garden Set List:
Do The Evolution
World Wide Suicide
Amongst The Waves
Not For You / Modern Girl
Push Me, Pull Me
Daughter / W.M.A.
Black Red Yellow
Given To Fly
Spin The Black Circle
Better Man / Save it for Later
The Real Me (The Who)
Hunger Strike (with Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell)
Kick Out The Jams (MC5)