Setting forth in the universe

Poster for Vedder’s first night at Hammersmith

Eddie Vedder, Hammersmith, 30 July 2012

Not content with Pearl Jam’s jaunt across Europe this summer – including the excellent Prague gig, about which more to follow soon– Eddie Vedder tagged on a six-date solo tour, including two dates at Hammersmith Apollo (Odeon as was); ample compensation for Pearl Jam themselves not playing London this time round. Hammersmith has a great history as a rock venue; it also still has the old-fashioned sign above the doors advertising who’s playing that night.

What do you call that type of sign outside a venue?

Vedder has released two highly regarded solo albums: 2007’s Golden Globe-nominated Into the Wild soundtrack, and 2011’s Grammy-nominated Ukulele Songs. Unsurprisingly, about half the set is drawn from these two fine albums. Equally unsurprisingly, Ukulele Songs is an album played entirely on the ukulele. Its Grammy nomination came in the Best Folk Album category; this hints at what lies at the heart of Vedder’s solo material, and what distinguishes it from his songwriting for Pearl Jam. Whereas the latter draws on the pantheon of classic rock artists, his solo material fits snugly within the North American singer-songwriter-storyteller tradition, steeped in the age-old roots of blues and folk via the touchstone Dylan and the likes of Young, Stevens, Taylor, Springsteen and others. It’s still the same songwriter, of course, with the same style of guitar play (shades of Townshend) and the same deft lyrical turn of phrase; the distinction in musical influences is heavily blurred (one should always take care when categorising music), but nonetheless there is one to be discerned.

Support came from Glen Hansard. Dubliner Hansard was the guitarist in The Commitments back in the 1990s, and in recent years has balanced long-term band The Frames with his own solo material amd The Swell Season. His support slot showcased his powerful, soulful voice, which amply filled the venue, although if one were to be critical, his material, accompanied by acoustic guitar only, sounded a tad one-dimensional.

Vedder opened, as he frequently did on his 2008 solo tour, with ‘Walkin’ the Cow’, a song by Daniel Johnston – coincidentally(-ish), Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt back in the day of the Hi, How Are You? frog, the cover artwork of the album from which this particular song is drawn – swiftly followed by Cat Stevens’ ‘Trouble’, a haunting song and a live favourite.

Turning to his tenor uke, Vedder played a selection from Ukulele Songs: ‘Can’t Keep’, ‘Sleepin’ By Myself’, ‘Without You’, ‘More Than You Know’, ‘Broken Heart’. Vedder first picked up a ukulele in Hawaii in the late 1990s, and he deftly contrasts the uke’s innately jaunty sound with his wistful, reflective lyrics (many, one can’t but suspect, about his two long-term relationships). As a lyricist, Vedder is unfailingly open-hearted, and this approach provides this album as a whole with a wider range of shades than may perhaps be expected from so simple an instrument.

The stage set was simple: a Hopper-esque (Edward, not Dennis) backdrop of the back of a tenement building, and a small carpeted area centre stage where Vedder’s panoply of instruments and amps were lined up, along with a suitcase at his feet with lyrics and setlist. This created an intimate atmosphere on a large stage. Aside from various forms of accompaniment on a few songs – an analog tape machine to provide drums on one songs or loops of sound on another, Hansard joining him for a few songs, a foot pedal to provide a beat when stamped – Vedder provided all the music and vocals. Unlike Pearl Jam gigs, there was no bottle of wine for between-song swigs, sacrificing the vibe the wine brings for the greater clarity and precision of musical delivery required when it’s just the one of you on stage.

‘I Am Mine’ was the first of a smattering of Pearl Jam songs: well-known songs such as ‘Unthought Known’ and ‘Small Town’ that readily lend themselves to acoustic versions; a storming take on ‘Porch’ that made good use of the drum beat pedal; an acoustic version of ‘Lukin’ with crystal clear lyrics; and the reworked, lullaby version of ‘Better Man’. Mid-set also came a selection of songs from Into the Wild, and its tales of the travels of Chris McCandless: ‘Setting Forth’, ‘Far Behind’, ‘Guaranteed’, ‘Rise’, ‘Long Nights’.

There were several covers in the set. Vedder draws on a wide range of artists for his solo sets, from those more well-known and predictable musical influences to the more obscure, but one always has the sense that the covers are carefully chosen and contain particular personal resonances. Besides the two set openers, this evening included his takes on The Beatles, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ (and a digression on why the original version has a French horn on it), Pink Floyd’s ‘Brain Damage’, and a relatively upbeat song from the introspective Nebraska, Springsteen’s ‘Open All Night’ (about a man driving through the night, car radio on, to be with his girl; an, errr, archetypal slice of Springsteen Americana).

With Pearl Jam, Vedder has at times stumbled and mumbled his words between songs, but his solo tour brings with it a lighter touch and more humour in how he chats to the audience between songs. Vedder was supported by roadies in white lab coats bringing out retuned instruments as required, but his daughters each brought out a guitar for him during the set, leading to a quip about the relaxed child labour laws in Britain.

Hansard joined Vedder for the first encore for the memorable triple bill of ‘Society’, a completely unamped ‘Sleepless Nights’ sung from the very front of the stage, and his own song ‘Falling Slowly’, which he had previously sung with Vedder in his own set at PJ20 last autumn. It’s definitely worth checking out the original, spell-binding version of this last song, which Hansard sung with Marketa Iglova for the film Once.

The first encore closed with a clever take on Riot Act’s ‘Arc’, using loops to create atmospheric layers of Vedder’s voice chanting out a simple melody with growing numbers of interwoven variations. The second encore, and final song, was ‘Hard Sun’, played in front of a striking backdrop of a limpid blue sea, harsh blue sky and glaring yellow sun.

  • Set: Walkin’ The Cow, Trouble, Can’t Keep, Sleepin’ By Myself, Without You, More Than You Know, Broken Heart, I Am Mine, Brian Damage/Dead Man, Small Town, Setting Forth, Far Behind, Guaranteed, Rise, Long Nights (w/ Glen Hansard), Good Woman, Better Man (Lullaby Version), You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Lukin, Porch
  • Encore 1: Unthought Known, Society (w/ Glen Hansard), Sleepless Nights (w/ Glen Hansard), Falling Slowly (w/ Glen Hansard), Open All Night, The End, Arc
  • Encore 2: Hard Sun (w/ Glen Hansard)

The following night at Hammersmith, Vedder was joined by Roger Daltrey for ‘Blue, Red and Grey’ and ‘Naked Eye’. The setlist was substantially different to the first night: setlist and poster for the second night.

Vedder covers a wide range of artists: here are bootlegs of some 65 songs from the 2008–09 tours, of which the 2012 tour was in some ways a continuation.

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About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

Share, if it makes you sleep, if it sets you free, if it helps you breathe…

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