GUND ARENA, CLEVELAND
APRIL 25, 2003
About a half hour after Pearl Jam wrapped up a remarkable 27-song set at Gund Arena in downtown Cleveland last Friday, I ran into a bunch of my college buddies who'd also been in attendance that night. "That was the best PJ show I've ever seen," claimed one of my friends who's now caught Eddie Vedder and the boys at least a dozen times. And after watching the former grunge icons shred through material from each of their seven studio albums along with several unreleased gems, I wasn't about to disagree.
"Can't Keep," the brilliant opening track from last year's Riot Act, served as an ideal launching point for the rest of the evening, giving way to "Corduroy," a concert staple from 1994's Vitalogy, and "Grievance" before cranking out the fiery "Save You." Just when I thought the pace would slow a bit following such a rowdy introduction, Eddie and Stone Gossard tore into the aggressive "Do the Evolution," a selection that was met with screaming approval from the Gund inhabitants.
Another cut from 1998's Yield, "Given to Fly," finally gave us all a chance to catch our collective breath, and afterwards Eddie addressed the crowd for the first time, proposing a toast to the fans with his bottle of wine and saying, "Thanks for coming. There's so many of you!" He then insisted that the best seats in the house were the ones closest to drummer Matt Cameron, a proclamation that no doubt made those suckers stuck behind the stage feel a little better about their unfortunate location. Moments later, we were all following word-for-word with Eddie as he flowed through the classic "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," such a cumbersome title for such a beautiful song. And when he sang, "I just want to scream…" everybody in the building finished the memorable line with a resounding, "HELLO!" I guarantee that if you go to just one Pearl Jam show, "Elderly Woman" will be the lasting memory you take home with you that night, a song that's performed as much by the crowd as it is by Eddie Vedder himself.
The introduction of Boom Gaspar on the B3 keyboards initiated two more cuts from Riot Act, the somber "Love Boat Captain" and "I Am Mine," the album's first single. But after this mellow foursome of tunes, something was needed to jumpstart the crowd again…and no song could do just that better than the ultimate PJ anthem, "Even Flow." Fans who'd been waiting for the first taste of 1991's debut Ten couldn't have made a better choice if Eddie had been taking requests onstage; Mike McCready's blistering guitar solo and Jeff Ament's unwavering bass line gave us all an aural reminder of what first attracted us to these flannelized rockers from Seattle more than a decade ago. But this wasn't the only Ten flashback of the night -- "Jeremy" was later followed by "Alive" and then "Black," all of which initially helped catapult PJ into stardom and all of which were greeted with some of the loudest ovations of the night. Fittingly, "Alive," which had been missing from the band's lineup throughout the past two tours, wrapped up the first set on the heels of Vitalogy's "Spin the Black Circle," a revved-up thumper that very nearly blew the roof off the building. Indeed, the Gund, home to the pitiful Cleveland Cavaliers and the WNBA's Rockers, hadn't seen this kind of excitement in years!
Following a short break the band took the stage again, with Eddie saying, "If you're not going, I guess we're not going," and after playing "You Are" from the new album, PJ delivered two more crowd favorites with "Animal" and then "Daughter," both from their sophomore effort Vs. "State of Love and Trust," a throwback from the Singles soundtrack, and a masterful performance of "Black" rounded out the first encore.
After a second and this time prolonged absence, Eddie, Mike, Stone, Jeff and Matt came out once more for an encore filled with spectacular covers, including Steven Van Zandt's "I Am a Patriot," "Driven to Tears" by the Police, "Crazy Mary" by Victoria Williams and "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys, a 1970s Cleveland punk band. "Betterman," perhaps the group's best-known single, was another sing-along hit, and then the night was wrapped up with one more superb cover, Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."
As I stood in the bar talking to my friends about the unbelievable performance we'd just witnessed, I began to wonder if in fact this was the pinnacle of my concert-going experiences or if I was merely responding to a sensational show. After all, I'd now been to six Pearl Jam concerts so how easily could I place this one ahead of the other five? It was unbelievable, no doubt, and the good news is the band is again selling bootlegs from this tour on PearlJam.com so I can relive the experience as often as I like. But the best ever? Perhaps I need a larger sample size….
I think I'll have to catch PJ this June when they come to Columbus and Cincinnati before I can make a final ruling.