A tale of two concerts: Pearl Jam’s KeyArena concerts from a fanboy’s point of view

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It was a tale of two concerts at KeyArena Monday and Tuesday nights when Pearl Jam launched its umpteenth U.S. tour with two completely different sets displaying the emotion, power and range of the local rock icons. But I’ll get to that soon enough; first I need to make a confession.

In full disclosure I must admit that as a music fan and writer I tend to play my fandom close to the vest, but when it comes to Pearl Jam I proudly wear it on my sleeve. Yes, I know it is cliché for a music writer in Seattle to be a huge Pearl Jam fan, but it’s equally cliché in this current Pitchfork climate for pretentious indie snobs in Seattle to pay no attention to one of this city’s biggest musical exports since Heart (Yes, I’m talking about you The Stranger). So I proudly own and announce my Pearl Jam fandom.

Now that my confessional is out of the way, let’s talk about the music. I’ll start by telling those of you who went to Monday’s show and didn’t pony up the cash for Tuesday’s concert that you really missed out. While I understand why you didn’t go to both nights since tickets were about $85 after service charges and tax, you should know Tuesday marked one of Pearl Jam’s best concerts in Seattle since their 1998 Memorial Stadium gigs. The contrast of the two nights felt similar to the band’s 2002 two-night stint at KeyArenawhere the first show was good but the second show was amazing. Tuesday the band played a set filled with deep cuts and rarities delivered with more emotion and passion than I’ve seen out of Pearl Jam in years. For a full rundown of what happened Monday read my review here.

With his typical safety blanket of composition books and bottles of wine by his side, Eddie Vedder was more playful and animated compared to the previous night. “Sometimes” from 1996’s No Code started the near-flawless set slowly but the momentum picked up with “Why Go,” “Insignificance,” “Comatose,” “Lukin” and others.

Another disclosure for the record: I don’t sing in public. In fact, the only time I sing Pearl Jam is when I’m at home alone in the shower. Tuesday KeyArena was my shower and I was bathing in a sea of some of my favorite PJ tunes (“Spin The Black Circle,” “Dissident” and “In My Tree” to name a few). Actually, I ended up becoming the guy I hate at concerts. You know him (or her) as the person who sings along loudly to every song and ruins it for you while you’re trying to listen to the vocalist on stage. In fact as I write this my voice is a little hoarse from all the singing, but man was it worth it. One of the reasons for my hoarseness is due to “No Way” from Yield a song the band rarely performs. It was only the fourth time in the band’s career “No Way” made an appearance in a set list, much to the delight of the hardcore Pearl Jam fans in attendance.

The set also included seven Backspacer tunes and although it’s a new song Vedder changed the words to “Supersonic,” turning it into a commentary about the departure of the Supersonics. The new version included the lyrics “I bought a ticket but the game was gone” and it was the most spirited song of the set. You’ll have to buy the bootleg to hear it because Eddie called it a one-time-only deal.

The only song that appeared on both nights that can’t be found on Backspacer was “Do The Evolution.” A cover of The Who’s “The Real Me” with the Syncopated Taint Horn Quartet also showed up both nights and the horns really brightened up the Pearl Jam sound. In theory Pearl Jam with horns sounds like a terrible idea but in practice it was an excellent departure. The band kept its rock edge (it’s a Who song, of course it’s going to rock) while adding a flashy element to its style.

The show’s only hiccup came when the up-tempo “Got Some” followed “Present Tense” which was an odd transition but it was rectified when the band busted out “Go” to end the main set.

The first encore started with Backspacer’s “Just Breathe” and “The End,” which is one of the most beautiful song Vedder has written since “Black.” After that touching combo, Vedder teased the crowd by suggesting something hard and heavy was on its way.

“I guess we should play something more upbeat,” he said. “Well too bad. I want you to feel pain.”

So what’s he go and do? He launches into “Black.”

Thanks Eddie, I really wanted to cry at a rock show.

Seriously though, it was a pretty impactful moment. Even though I was sitting in the deep recesses of KeyArena behind the soundboard, the emotional heft of the song combined with 17,000 people singing along made it feel like an intimate performance and not a big arena rock show. It’s moments like that when the power of Pearl Jam shines. It was also during that moment when the show went from being one of the band’s better efforts at KeyArena to its best. The set list combined with the band’s passion and emotion are what made the second show easily surpass Monday’s tour kickoff.

In summary Monday was a mixed bag of hits combined with new material. All the usual suspects showed up including the dramatic “Daughter,” the crowd singalong “Better Man” and a pretty mediocre “Even Flow.” The big surprise of that night was the Octava String Quartet sitting in for two songs (they came back for Tuesday’s show). It was a pretty even set but nothing too spectacular. It’s also worth noting that Monday didn’t end with “Yellow Ledbetter.” Actually it ended with the house lights turned on for an uplifting “Alive.”

In contrast Tuesday’s show, which was Pearl Jam’s 50th concert in Seattle (“Not as many as Mudhoney,” Vedder said.), ended like so many before it with the Hendrix homage “Yellow Ledbetter.” YLB transitioned into Mike McCready hammering out a spectacular “Star Spangled Banner” like it usually does. I’m typically not a hugely patriotic person, but McCready’s rendition of the National Anthem always gets to me so I took off my Pearl Jam hat, held it over my heart and stared at the flag simultaneously saluting both America and one of this country’s best bands, Pearl Jam. It felt like the perfect way to end two great nights at KeyArena.

Setlist for Sept. 21, 2009: Long Road/Corduroy/Gonna See My Friend/Got Some/Hail Hail/Amongst The Waves/Daughter/Even Flow/Johnny Guitar/Unthought Known/World Wide Suicide/Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town/Off He Goes/Down/Save You/The Fixer/Life Wasted/FIRST ENCORE Just Breathe with the Octava String Quartet/The End with the Octava String Quartet/Inside Job/RRearview Mirror/SECOND ENCORE Given To Fly/Do The Evolution/Betterman/The Real Me with the Syncopated Taint Horn Quartet/Indifference/Alive

Setlist for Sept. 22, 2009: Sometimes/Why Go/All Night/The Fixer/Dissident/Johnny Guitar/Faithful/Lukin/Not For You/No Way/Unthought Know/Unemployable/Comatose/Insignifigance/Present Tense/Got Some/Go/FIRST ENCORE Just Breathe with the Octava String Quartet/The End with the Octava String Quartet/Black/In My Tree/Spin The Black Circle/SECOND ENCORE Supersonic (with custom lyrics about the Seattle Supersonics)/Do The Evolution/The Real Me with the Syncopated Taint Horn Quartet/Porch/Yellow Ledbetter/Star Spangled Banner

Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 14 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and editor of defunct music site Ear Candy.