Sometimes a gig so good comes along that any meaningful comparisons are blown away. Almost out of the blue, Pearl Jam delivered the kind of show that raises the arena-rock bar for all those that tread these boards after them.
By every measure, Pearl Jam landed a monster. Perversely, starting this review at the end of the gig makes most sense. After a dozen songs within a brace of emotional encores, Eddie Vedder and his talented troupe of troubadours were basking in some thunderous applause.
From a lofty perch at the top corner the arena, we could see punters on the floor streaming to the exits and around us making for the stairs. With the house lights up, the band hitched themselves to their kit again and found the reserves, at the end of a three-hour-plus set, for one more foray.
Mike McCready sliced out the intro to ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The tide of departing fans was turned. The band smashed out a glorious, edgy, unscripted third encore. On completion, Vedder stood tall, crashed his microphone stand into the floor and the band departed for a final time with incredulous cheers ringing in their ears.
This had been a curfew-busting gig running easily 50 minutes past the 10.30pm cut-off. And not the first time that Pearl Jam have taken the fines in order to deliver the show they wanted.
Tonight, they obviously felt there was some business to fix. This show was postponed from the previous month when Vedder lost his voice on the day of the gig. It was rescheduled to become the last night of the current European Tour. That also helped the fevered atmosphere inside the O2 hothouse.
What really made the mood was the way Pearl Jam went about that business. The band has a colossal, influential back catalogue, but never rests on its laurels. A certain on-line gig resource tells us (even allowing for inevitable errors) that Pearl Jam don’t play the same set twice.
It shows. The music tonight felt fresh and the band looked enervated. The crowd didn’t know what was coming next. As if to emphasise the point, ‘Oceans’, played only once before on this 19-date tour was tonight’s surprise opening track and was greeted like an old friend; a sweeping ‘Nothing as It Seems’ from ‘Binaural’ nine years later, followed up, making only its second tour appearance.
The gig caught fire with ‘Go’ and ‘Corduroy’ and by the time the funky, infectious ‘Do the Evolution’ arrived, even those in the top tier staring down a precarious 45-degree slope were dancing as if their lives depended on it.
The energy and freshness spilled from the stage: a band thrilled to be playing for each other and for the audience. Vedder was going for broke: ‘Lukin’ was sharply acerbic and later ‘Whipping’ was muscular and visceral. Stone Gossard stepped up to the mic for ‘Mankind’, and there was some tongue-in-cheekness about whether Vedder was needed in the band anymore. No one was joking when Vedder’s third guitar added grit and depth to tracks like ‘I Am Mine’ and ‘Green Disease’.
That three-way guitar dynamic was an unexpected joy, with Mike McCready often crawling inventive solos in and around the rhythm pair. McCready continues to be underestimated as a lead guitarist. Tonight he could have played anything and traded any emotion. He seemed to flit easily between styles with hints of Hendrix and Gilmour amongst the Stones-y blues licks and harder edged riffs.
McCready’s solo on ‘Even Flow’ was an absolute masterclass; the grunge-fuelled, dirty riff to ‘Can’t Deny Me’ was a crunching highlight and the sinuous groove to ‘Rearviewmirror’ brought hoots of joy. His extended jams with Boom Gaspar on organ, playing right under his nose stage right, evoked warmth and contentment.
As well as unrestrained dancing and ambitious air guitar moves, the crowd were also in tuneful and energetic voice: from the echoing chorus of a searing ‘Jeremy’, to bellowing every word of a beautiful ‘Daughter’. You might have got the feeling that these songs belonged absolutely to the audience.
Perhaps the finest collective moment of the North Greenwich Peninsula massive was not in response to a Pearl jam-penned song, but to one of their thoughtful covers. First track of the first encore was a spine-tingling acoustic rendition of Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t back Down’ where there was nothing to do but revel in the waves of “Hey baby/There ain’t no easy way out” rolling around the arena. Not a dry eye…
Semi-acoustic versions of ‘Fatal’ and ‘Around The Bend’ followed and provided one of the few sustained mellow sections in an otherwise tough, feisty and urgent set. Over the course of three hours, the pace was busy without being careless; enthusiastic but not reckless.
Vedder’s connections with the crowd kept things grounded and emphasised the credibility of this band. His apology for the no-show last month was earnest and his denouncement of Trump was humorous. Though his English geography may be suspect. “It’s a hometown gig for this guy!”, said Eddie, introducing a roadie. Pause. “Oh, he says he’s from Cornwall!”
When ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter…’ kicked in, Vedder and comrades turned their back on the main arena and sang entirely to the few rows of fans above and behind the stage, illuminated by stage lights, they received their own intimate rendition. It is the little things.
As they left the stage, I still wanted more. No ‘Black’? no ‘Better Man’? What about ‘Long Road’? Surely another half hour wouldn’t have been greedy? Always leave them wanting more.
The gig worked on so many levels. There is a searing honesty and indestructible credibility about this band, aside from the quality of the songs and the genius of the playing. It all connects with the audience and results in such a memorable, complete, immersive experience. If there is a better band around right now I would dearly love to see them.
Review by Dave Atkinson
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