They were playing their final shows of 2018, so it was a cause for celebration — and holy mother, did Pearl Jam bring their a-game to Fenway Park across Labor Day weekend.
For the better part of the last week, the area surrounding Boston’s holy baseball grounds was speckled with welcoming messages to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, as they set up shop in center field for a double-header of marathon shows on Sunday (September 2) and Tuesday (September 4). But no amount of signage could compare to the earth shattering pandemonium they were met with as they took their time-tested brand of rock and roll to the stage each night.
What unfolded at Fenway over the last few days was something nearly incomprehensible. The pair of gigs, dubbed “The Away Shows,” was a two-day collective sermon on the gospel of rock according to Pearl Jam, where over 70,000 crazed congregants chanted the praises of the Seattle grunge Gods.
The two shows had a number of differences to separate them and make them each unique and powerful performances, but a constant theme that was shared between both outings was the absolute, uninhibited hunger displayed by the band. Which, for those who have seen the quintet live before, should come as no surprise at all.
Behind the leadership of an energetic and eager Eddie Vedder, there were very few hiccups in the band’s consistent delivery of sheer ear candy to its loyal fans over the duration of the two sets, both of which lasting in excess of 2.5 hours.
Whether it was bassist Jeff Ament’s jungle boogie rhythms rumbling from his fingertips to accent drummer Matt Cameron’s brutality on the skins, keyboardist Boom Gaspar’s hypnotic skills on the keys, or even guitarist Stone Gossard’s calculated but boisterous grooves, there was a palpable sense of youthful energy that was at play on the center field stage. Vedder took time to banter with the crowd, share some of his wine, and serve up some of the best vocal performances he’s ever given the city of Boston over the course of the band’s 24-show history here.
Certainly not an exception to this youthful energy was guitarist Mike McCready, who was on his own planet as he ripped into frequent fits of soaring guitar solos — a few of which he played behind his head — even in the midst of suffering from a sinus infection and a fever during the second show.
The first night’s setlist brought all the bangers to the ballpark. Starting things off on Sunday with a flurry of slow-burners like “Sometimes,” “Release,” and “Low Light,” Vedder and crew picked up the pace following a stadium-wide sing-along to “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In a Small Town,” as the enigmatic frontman tore into “Why Go.”
It was full steam ahead from there, even through moving tributes to an ailing Bono, as well as John McCain (of whom Vedder dedicated “Army Reserve”), and an emotional ode to Tom Petty as Vedder played a cover of “Won’t Back Down” on a Red Telecaster which Petty sent to him in the mail before his untimely passing.
The “junk food” hits were in no short supply on the opening night, either, as the boys tore through tenacious renditions of “Even Flow,” “Corduroy,” “Mind Your Manners,” and “I Am a Patriot,” before closing out the first part of the set with an extended performance of “Porch.” Not sparing too much time for an acoustic portion of the show, Vedder and the gang kept on chugging along with tracks like “Once,” “State of Love and Trust,” and “Black,” before homegrown indie rock hero Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom joined Vedder on stage for a duet on “Taillights Fade”, which Vedder stressed is one of his all-time favorite jams.
The band’s hunger was almost primal throughout the first night, and fans ensured that it stayed that way as they sung themselves home with invigorating versions of “Alive,” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” to close the show.
Tuesday’s back-end of the double-header proved to be a little different for Pearl Jam fans, as the band dug deep into their catalog for a good portion of the set, giving Ten Club lifers a tasty treat to bask in for a little while; cranking out tunes like “Red Mosquito,” “Immortality,” and “Go,” to name a few.
Of course, a few songs found themselves copied from sunday’s setlist, and Janovitz came back to reprise “Taillights Fade” once more, while a few other well-known tracks that didn’t make the cut for the previous night’s docket, like “Better Man” and “Jeremy,” were explored, and fans tuned in just as intensely to send the band off as they did to welcome them only 48 hours earlier.
The field became somewhat of a party scene as the night drew closer to an end, with numerous condom balloons and wafting clouds of pot smoke hanging in the dense humidity that had turned Fenway into a dank, sweaty den of body odor and beer stained t-shirts. As if Red Sox fans would go an entire Pearl Jam show, especially when a baseball fanatic like Vedder is involved, without an appearance from a member of the hometown nine, World Series champion and fan favorite Kevin Youkilis graced the stage in all of his bearded glory, as the crowd assaulted him with his customary welcome chant of “YOOOOOUUUUUKKKKK,” before his good friend Eddie sat down to deliver a goosebump-raising cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Sure, it was characteristic for the hard rocking activists to sprinkle doses of political and social commentary into their set, but the cellphone lights that illuminated the stadium for the duration of the quintessential utopian anthem represented a desperately needed sense of understanding and togetherness in a time where it’s tough to believe that those things even exist anymore.
After ripping through another handful of tunes like “Crazy Mary,” “Comatose,” and “Rearviewmirror,” the final group of songs rolled in Tuesday night as Vedder took a moment to thank the crowd for the love, and found himself getting choked up a bit before bringing the heat once again with a sizzling rendition of “Life Wasted.”
If the setlist for Tuesday was only comprised of the final four songs the band played that night, it still would’ve been one of the best performances the city has seen this year.
After Janovitz rejoined the band for a sing-along cover of The Standells’ “Dirty Water,” and after the crowd screamed out the lyrics to “Alive” at the top of their lungs, Vedder — who was clad in nearly full Red Sox regalia by that point — fetched a baseball mitt to play catch with the crowd while McCready and the rest of the band undoubtedly knocked The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” out of the park.
Fans began to funnel out as McCready grooved into the opening riff of “Yellow Ledbetter,” but there was still more than enough spectators to help him drive it home. Left alone at center stage after the band took a collective bow before exiting, McCready put the finishing touches on a nearly perfect holiday weekend at Fenway Park with a Hendrix-inspired rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Pearl Jam have been playing in Boston for 27 years, so they don’t have anything left to prove to their ravenous fans in the city. But if there was, in fact, anything left to prove, it’s almost a guarantee that they’ve proven themselves to be one of the greatest live bands of our time.
All photos by Jason Greenough for Vanyaland; follow him on Twitter @DadBodVanilla.