Written by Dan Hyman • Photography by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images • August 22, 2016
In 2013, when Pearl Jam concluded their first show at Wrigley Field in Chicago with a rollicking cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World" it was as much a testament to the passion of the Seattle band's fanbase as it was to the band itself. That night, everyone involved in the show had endured a nearly three-hour rain delay before Pearl Jam finally hit the stage and reeled off a fiery multi-hour set that didn't conclude until the early-morning hours.
The drama may not have been as palpable on Saturday night when Eddie Vedder and Co. returned for the first of two sold-out shows at the Friendly Confines, but the performance was every bit as essential. "We're back!" the singer told the rapturous crowd at the outset of a three-plus-hour music marathon. Vedder, whose daughter and niece were also in attendance, noted that nature was on the band's side this go-round, much as it had been when he saw Bruce Springsteen perform there in 2012. "Even God doesn't throw lightning on Bruce," he laughed. "There's God and then there's The Boss." It all set the stage for yet another monumental moment in the band's already iconic career.
A loud-and-proud Cubs fan, Vedder obviously relished the opportunity to gig at the cherished venue once again. To that end, PJ not only ran through rowdy renditions of some of their most beloved hits ("Jeremy" "Better Man," during which Vedder dropped to his knees during the guitar solo, while red Lightning Bolt-era lights bathed the stage), but also dusted off some deep cuts (the windswept acoustic lament "Bee Girl," during which bassist Jeff Ament joined Vedder at the stage front on acoustic guitar; "Sad," off Lost Dogs, a 2011 double-disc collection of B-sides and rarities), and choice covers. But is was Ten that took the spotlight on Saturday: the band trotted out seven songs from their monumental 1991 debut LP, including a soaring "Release" minutes into the show, a song Vedder dedicated to a man named John who had waited four days to get into Wrigley.
Ironically, it was the cover songs that provided some of the night's most memorable moments. A nod to their past misfortune at the hands of Mother Nature, Pearl Jam broke out a loose and lively spin on the Beatles' B-side "Rain"; later they spun through a winding version of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," a song they've trotted out on rare occasion since first performing it in 1992 at Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in New York City, using it as a not-so-subtle commentary on the current political climate. And as they've done nearly every night of this current tour, PJ took Pink Floyd's swampy "Comfortably Numb" for a ride—Vedder reminiscing beforehand about sitting on the rocks of Lake Michigan as a youngster, listening to the song and seeing "a world of possibilities."
Whereas some of their contemporaries' shows feel little more than a nostalgia trip, Pearl Jam have remained a vital act if largely because of the raw punk-rock energy the band still brings to the stage. "Do The Evolution" was typically gritty and ferocious on Saturday, guitarist Stone Gossard amping up the energy on rare occasion; live staple "Alive," performed during the second of three encores, was injected with extra grime, with McCready slashing through a trademark behind-the-back guitar solo and drummer Matt Cameron swinging extra hard behind the kit; a cover of Cheap Tricks' "Surrender" was hard-charging, urgent, and even a bit sweet.
Speaking of sweet, the band has consistently thrown itself behind humanitarian efforts over the years, and Saturday was no different. They hosted a surprise onstage marriage proposal for Army Sergeant Kyle Johnson before "Just Breath"; they brought former NFL safety Steve Gleason, who is currently battling ALS, onstage to speak before his favorite song, "Inside Job"; and they paid homage to Canadian band the Tragically Hip, whose singer Gord Downie is facing terminal brain cancer.
From a musical perspective, the feel-good-vibes were in plain sight as well. Just when it appeared the band had called it a night, Vedder returned to the stage donning a Cubs jersey and brought out some of the team's former players and family members for a sing-along of his Cubs anthem "All The Way" before the wrapping the show with a heroic cover of The Who's "Baba O' Riley."
"Last time felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Vedder said early on during Saturday's show. As evidenced by the first of this weekend's two Pearl Jam shows, the battle that was the 2013 Wrigley gig was merely an appetizer for this year's main course. It was a return to sacred ground for the iconic band, an opportunity they seized upon with full force and gratitude.
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