…see the path cut by the moon, for you to walk on.
Pearl Jam, Prague, 2 July 2012
One of the big plusses of blogging as a form of communication is its immediacy; you can post your scribblings and upload photos pretty much on the way home from an event – or if you’re like me, right on the cutting edge of technology, as soon as you get home, make a cup of tea and turn your pc on.
So, to celebrate its first anniversary, here’s my review of Pearl Jam’s Prague gig, part of their 2012 summer tour. Becky and I decided to catch them in Prague as part of a longer stay in the city (beats going to Manchester); Prague got the nudge over Berlin because the venue had a fan-only standing area at the front, so we could get reasonably close to the stage without getting crushed. As you’ll see, didn’t help my photographic talents much, though you’ll doubtless be relieved to be spared all my photos of Prague itself, beautiful historic city though it is.
Support came from vintage LA punks X. They look these days like professors from a particularly cool northwestern university, over in Prague during the summer holidays, researching for their next academic tome. (It’s a university I’d happily have attended.) They played an impressively taut set. Their first album, 1980’s Los Angeles, is excellent. Vedder is a long-term fan – he often covers John Doe’s ‘Golden State’ on his solo tours – and out he duly came for their last song, ‘Devil Doll’. Here’s their setlist.
As ever, Pearl Jam kicked off with a slow song to build the vibe, but as soon as they locked in to the monstrously grooved riff of second song ‘Animal’, the place was jumping. That the band were in a special place was confirmed by ‘Given to Fly’, its lambent McCready opening building into a tidal wave of a chorus. The lyrics were amended to suit location too: “made it to the river, had a smoke on a bridge”.
Vedder had the red wine out early, and band and crowd fed hungrily off each other’s enthusiasm. Later on, during ‘Life Wasted reprise’, he gave us his best cheesy rocker impression by saying it was the best crowd on the tour; insisting in characteristically earnest style that he didn’t say it to every crowd every night, and that band and crew would back him up. Unlike when, say, Bret Michaels rolls that one out with a whoop and a ‘let’s part-ay’, I believed him; I half-expected him to present a signed testimonial from band manager Kelly Curtis to that effect. Vedder was clearly besotted with the Czech Republic, later describing it as a “country of hidden treasures, … a beautiful, faraway land you could only dream of as a kid”.
Vedder was labouring with a slight sore throat, even before he tried out his finest Czech on the audience; having personally struggled with ‘thanks’ whilst out there (děkuji, since you ask), he gave it a good go to my English cloth ears. He didn’t hold back vocally, though he was clearly grateful for some audience support on a few of the choruses. The venue was a bit dome-y (technical term), with a circle at the top above the crowd that Vedder likened to a giant eye (probably the red wine encouraging artistic licence). Before rolling into ‘God’s Dice’, he elliptically quoted Oliver Wilde (either Oscar’s lesser-known younger brother, or see earlier red wine comment), that he didn’t believe in god, but in something greater than that. These hippies get everywhere. There’s just way too much Mother Nature for them to smoke. I blame Uncle Neil.
[As an aside, standing in front of us was a chap who later in the gig regularly had his arms aloft in either ecstasy, or supplication, or both; at times the set seemed for him to be almost a spiritual experience. Fair play to the guy, I suppose, although, as magical as a great gig can be – that sense between band and fans of emotionally connecting and sharing something memorable – and this was one, I’m left baffled by that quasi-religious aspect, especially when it centres on Vedder. Just another human being… But I digress.]
One of the joys of a Pearl Jam gig lies in the setlist. With nine studio albums behind them, plus countless B-sides and covers that they’ve made their own, there’s a substantial back catalogue to choose from, and they are diligent in varying their setlists nightly. You never quite know what you’re going to get – usually a mix of the well-known, the new, the revived oldie and the odd obscure one thrown in for good measure. So in Prague, alongside the likes of live faves ‘Small Town’ and ‘Corduroy’, we got ‘Unthought Known’ and ‘The Fixer’ from Backspacer, ‘Garden’ and ‘Why Go’ from Ten, and ‘Push Me, Pull Me’ and ‘1/2 Full’ from Yield and Riot Act. The band have also started playing ‘Setting Forth’ from Vedder’s soundtrack for Into the Wild; from memory Vedder played the intro with guitar behind his neck.
Some of the standout tracks for me were ‘Animal’, ‘Small Town’, an immense ‘Even Flow’ and a rolling ‘I Am Mine’. Mike McCready was in fine form, sharp blues licks aplenty for ‘Garden’ and ‘1/2 Full’ and a face-melting solo on ‘Even Flow’. They even snuck a bit of the Stones’ ‘Angie’ on to the end of ‘Crazy Mary’. Stone Gossard was his usual, relentlessly precise self on rhythm guitar, delivering groove after groove.
Radio Seattle’s drummer, Zeek, is a massive Soundgarden fan, and has said before that he thinks Matt Cameron is wasted in Pearl Jam. In one sense I kind of understand what he means – Soundgarden’s music is structurally complex, whereas PJ songs tend to be in 4/4 or 6/8, and less technically challenging to a drummer of Cameron’s capabilities. But one of a drummer’s central skills is how well he or she gels with the bassist: get it bang on and an immense rhythm underpins each song. Cameron and Jeff Ament have been playing together a long time now – in PJ since 1998, and before that on 1991’s Temple of the Dog – and make an ideal pairing, perfectly propelling the band forward. Not remotely wasted! (Also, check out what Cameron on occasion does live on ‘Even Flow’ when the song breaks down to just him on drums before the others rejoin him for the final chorus. Sheesh. And yes, I’ve tried really hard to avoid the wince-inducing, bar-filling term ‘drum solo’ there, it just doesn’t seem appropriate because it’s genuinely part of the song, not a bolt-on whilst the rest of the band take a quick fag break backstage.)
It was a long gig (about 2 hrs 20 mins), and we were treated to two encores. Highlight of the first one was Vedder playing ‘Just Breathe’ on his acoustic. The second one was a string of classic PJ live staples, from the massive singalong of ‘Better Man’, to the bathetic and apposite pairing of ‘Black’ and ‘Alive’, an exuberant, tambourine-destroying ‘Baba O’Riley’, and the reflective wind-down of ‘Yellow Ledbetter’. I challenge anyone to improve on these five to close a set with!
A great band at the top of their game. Fingers crossed they’re back in Europe in 2014 with new album in tow.
Set: Sometimes, Animal, Given To Fly, Got Some, Small Town, God’s Dice, The Fixer, I Am Mine, Corduroy, Even Flow, Setting Forth, Not For You, Push Me, Pull Me, Garden, 1/2 Full, Unthought Known, Wasted Reprise, Life Wasted, Why Go
Encore 1: Of The Girl, Just Breathe, Crazy Mary, Angie/Rock The Casbah, Once, Do The Evolution
Encore 2: World Wide Suicide, Better Man/Save It For Later, Black, Alive, Baba O’Riley, Yellow Ledbetter
Should you wish to download the gig, there’s a link in the comments for the Spreading the Jam webpage for this gig. (It was working the other day.) Listening back a year later, there’s the odd wobble, not least on ‘Do the Evolution’, and Vedder’s sore throat causes a few missed notes, but you still get a sense of the great vibe that evening.
PS With my amazing research skills, I’ve just found the whole gig in HD on Youtube: