Pearl Jam Honor John McCain, Tom Petty at Fenway Park
"No more divisiveness, no more divisiveness," Eddie Vedder sang in an improvised vamp during Pearl Jam's "Blood," last night at the first of two sold-out shows at Boston's Fenway Park.
It was a powerful moment, and it seemed to be a theme of last night's show. Pearl Jam is a band who have never hidden their progressive politics, and they've often had a confrontational relationship with their fans over that; this came to a head with an infamous performance of "Bu$hleaguer" in New York in 2003. But last night, they didn't mention the current President by name, which was somewhat refreshing in an era where most people can't seem to avoid doing so.
Like the rest of the country, Pearl Jam had Senator John McCain on their collective minds; they dedicated "Army Reserve" to McCain and other veterans. The lyrics are sung from the perspective of a woman whose husband is serving in the Armed Forces. "She tells herself and everyone else/Father is risking his life for our freedoms," Vedder sings. Those words took on extra weight, as the world mourns the loss of McCain, a former prisoner of war, who finally returned home, and spent the rest of his life serving.
Also receiving a tribute last night was Tom Petty; Eddie Vedder told a story about giving Petty a guitar that the legendary singer/songwriter was looking for. He said that a few weeks later, Petty repaid the favor by sending him a red Fender Telecaster; Vedder played that guitar on a solo rendition of "I Won't Back Down" that had the entire stadium singing.
One of the other covers was Steven Van Zandt's "I Am A Patriot." Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist and former Sopranos co-star, like Petty, has wide appeal, and his song knows no party lines. Specifically, the lyrics say, "I ain't no Democrat/ And I ain't no Republican/I only know one party /And it is freedom/I am a patriot, and I love my country." It's a song Vedder used to play during his solo acoustic segment of Pearl Jam's shows; in recent years, Pearl Jam play it as a band, giving the song more power.
Bono also got a shout-out early in the show. Noting that U2 canceled their concert the previous night mid-set, due to the enigmatic frontman losing his voice, Vedder praised the singer's seemingly endless energy; he pointed out that he was meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel just a few nights earlier, and that he works tirelessly for his (RED) organization. It wasn't only famous people who got shout-outs; Vedder thanked the Red Sox's groundskeeper, who will get Fenway ready for baseball after Pearl Jam leave the stadium on Tuesday night. He sent well-wishes out to a local music venue employee who couldn't make the show, but who he'd maintained a relationship with for decades. And the band shared their stage with a local indie rocker, Bill Janovitz, who they invited onstage for a performance of "Tail Lights" by his band, Buffalo Tom.
Few recognized that song, but that's fine: Pearl Jam fans are always along for the ride. The band played a number of reliable classics: "Why Go," "Corduroy," "Given To Fly," "Evenflow," "Daughter," "Do The Evolution," "Porch," "Once" and "Black" were among the songs that, predictably, got huge responses.
It would be easy for the band to stick with the proven crowd pleasers. The band certainly enjoy playing them; in 2018, they are one of the tightest and most powerful bands in the world. Mike McCready's solos, which are frequent, are still a highlight of Pearl Jam shows and he still plays them as if he's a kid who won a contest to join a major band on stage. He pulls out all the stops, from sprinting across the stage while soloing to playing behind his head, a la Jimi Hendrix, all while blowing minds with his lightning-fast but soulful playing. Stone Gossard, the less flashy half of the guitar team also gets a few solos, but is rock solid playing some of the most iconic riffs of the past few decades. Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron, meanwhile, make up one of tightest rhythm sections of their generation. Keyboardist "Boom" Gaspar adds gravitas and a vintage feel to the slower songs, and Vedder has become a Springsteen-level frontman.
Sticking with the classics would have been easy and fun, and no one would complain, but they also threw in a few rarities: Vitalogy's "Tremor Christ" and the 1995 B-side, "Out Of My Mind" (it was only the fourth performance of the latter) as well as the 2002 B-side "Down" (where their progressive roots show: the song quotes Howard Zinn in the line, "You can't be neutral on a moving train").
At this point, it would be easy to blast the president from the stage. And by now, Pearl Jam's fans know to expect that from the band. Instead, they took a higher path, focusing on the things that unite us rather than what divides us. The result: another great show from one of rock's most consistent bands. And it was a show that left a stadium of fans awestruck.