Pearl Jam’s year-long PJ20 jubilee may have passed the UK by last year, but the mood of reflection and celebration lives on in their first European tour in three years, and this Manchester Arena show was a triumphant way to kick things off.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Eddie Vedder and Co at the Arena here three times now, dating back to 2000′s Binaural tour, and each show seems to see them get more happy and relaxed and more enjoyable to watch, and this particular show was the grunge equivalent of a great big, warm hug between band and fans. That was a theme of Cameron Crowe‘s PJ20 film, and it’s a cliche, but you’d have to be particularly cynical not to feel the connection here.
After all, this was a sold-out arena show by a band who have bothered the UK top 10 only once (in 1994) and haven’t been in the top 40 for a decade, so are unlikely to be too encumbered with casual fans. Instead they have fans who will sing along, en masse, with pretty much whatever they want to play, a loyalty built up over two decades of fierce (almost self-parodic) integrity, intensity and just playing great rock music like they mean it. This setlist was full of that.
Last time out, they were playing songs from Backspacer, an album that hadn’t been released yet, so there were inevitably moments when the atmosphere went a little bit flat, but this time they had nothing new to promote, so there was no such issue. From the opening moments of Release to the uproarious lights-on, curfew-busting finale of Rockin’ In The Free World, Vedder’s voice was echoed by thousands from Manchester and all over the world, judging by the accents.
Certainly if there was any first night rustiness, it wasn’t evident from the epic 25-song set and the energetic performances, with bassist Jeff Ament bouncing around like a teenager, Mike McCready prowling the stage and Matt Cameron showing no ill-effects of embarking upon his second European tour of the year, having only just finished one with Soundgarden. How he manages to play drums in both of the biggest Seattle grunge bands simultaneously is a mystery, but he’s pulling it off with aplomb so far and has certainly brought more to Pearl Jam than just an end to the Spinal Tap days of endless drummers.
The setlist was a nice mixture of songs from older albums (with no less than seven from Ten) and newer material from Backspacer, their fantastic last album, and the reaction songs like Just Breathe, Got Some and The Fixer received showed that they are already established as Pearl Jam classics. The first of those was dedicated to friends of Eddie who got married recently but were unlucky enough to time it with a European tour, so didn’t get to hear it played at their wedding. It’s a beautiful song – recently covered by Willie Nelson, no less – so their loss was our gain and it was yet another mass sing-a-long.
The same treatment was given to other wonderful ballads like Nothingman, Better Man, Elderly Woman… and Black, a song that Vedder still somehow manages to sing with the wounded intensity of twenty years ago, making it forever a highlight of their sets. Indeed, it’s one of the few songs that they’ve played each time I’ve seen them, along with essentials like Do The Evolution, Given To Fly and Even Flow, and tonight was the first time I’ve heard them play Jeremy, which was delivered in a devastating one-two with Alive, after a lovely requested performance of Come Back.
Vedder was in fine form whenever he stepped up to address his crowd, whether joking about his wine intake or paying heartfelt tribute to Joe Strummer (after a great Arms Aloft) or to Radiohead and their touring crew after last weekend’s tragedy. The reason Pearl Jam are still selling out arenas in the UK after twenty-one years is that not only do they always put on a great show, but they manage to make each one feel like a special event for each person there. Amongst the merchandise were date-specific posters, t-shirts and flags, and after a show as good as this, who wouldn’t want to splash out on that kind of memory? Here’s another request, just Come Back, soon.
It's no coincidence that Lita Ford's eight solo album is the first to reference her time in The Runaways in its title. Living Like A Runaway is the sound of an artist recognising that the best way forwards usually means acknowledging your past.