Every great live concert unfolds in three acts. It begins with the big foundation performances that everyone expects, the songs that cause thousands of people to lean forward and try to match the singer in the upper decibel reaches. Then the show gets intimate, so personal that simmering grudges get swept under the stage with a few laughs, people start proposing marriage and even the performers seem surprised at how sweet the mood can get at a 22,000-seat basketball arena.
The final stage of any concert worth remembering comes when the performers and the audience agree to set the rulebook on fire, which is what happened at Pearl Jam’s Saturday concert at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The house lights went up but the band kept playing as singer Eddie Vedder poured wine from his stage supply for lucky front-row fans and the audience heard possibly the most committed and feral performance of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” that’s been done since the days when Keith Moon was still alive.
And this was all coming from musicians who are either closing in on age 50 or, in the case of bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron, have already crossed that threshold.
Pearl Jam’s standard for live performances was high from the beginning of its career, and that ferocious energy is why the near-capacity crowd was essentially in thrall to the band by the third song, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” After that, Pearl Jam just kept throwing the hammer down, banging out back-to-back thrashers with “Mind Your Manners” and “Do the Evolution.”
Then Vedder pointed out the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Earlier this month, The Lost Ogle posted video of the singer going off about the loss of his beloved Seattle Supersonics in front of a Charlotte, N.C. audience. Just before playing “MFC (Mini Fast Car)” on Saturday, he acknowledged his not-so-choice words for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“We’ve gone to some therapy, we’ve dealt with our anger issues,” Vedder said, promising to give a more lengthy explanation later. And after a searing version of “Even Flow,” he dedicated “Sirens” to the people affected by the May tornadoes.
Following the 18-song main set, Pearl Jam loosened up a lot in its first encore, and a good concert became truly great. With guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready perched on stools, Vedder was prepared to launch into a gorgeous version of “Just Breathe” when he learned that someone on the front row wanted to propose marriage. The audience became transfixed as a young woman got on one knee and proposed to her boyfriend and Vedder grinned widely from center stage.
Then, with Ament sporting a Seattle jersey with “Durant 35″ stitched across the back, Vedder made peace with the Thunder, but slyly winking throughout.
“See, here’s the deal,” Vedder said. “It’s nothing to do with Oklahoma or Oklahoma City or Tulsa or this state or the people or the locals or people in this building. It’s simply what it’d be like if your girlfriend, who you were with in a long-time relationship … well, you wouldn’t like her new husband. If it was Fresno, I’d be p—-d off at Fresno.”
Then he went off on Sacramento, Calif., because the NBA blocked a proposal in September to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle. So far, there are no Sacramento dates scheduled for Pearl Jam’s current tour.
With that out of the way, Vedder flew into high gear, swinging on one of the green, glowing drop lights and then singing 1991′s “Jeremy” like he was trying to make it a hit all over again.
Over two hours into the concert and with 25 songs behind them, the group started its second encore by filing around to the back of the stage and performing its version of “Last Kiss” for the backstage audience, giving people who were getting used to watching the back of Cameron’s drum kit the best seats in the arena. The house lights stayed up and Vedder, who had been taking pulls off of a few bottles of wine placed around his monitors throughout the show, started serving people in the front row. He became the best-paid wine steward in Oklahoma City.
With the entire arena illuminated, the audience just lost its collective mind as Pearl Jam scored a three-pointer with its first hit, “Alive,” that roaring Who cover and a closing performance of “Yellow Ledbetter,” one of those coveted songs that faithful fans always hope will be played.
It might have seemed like Vedder was walking into enemy territory after his inopportune and intemperate remarks about the Thunder a few weeks ago. But after Pearl Jam gave Oklahoma City the kind of lengthy, heartfelt and tireless performance that resembled Bruce Springsteen’s three-hour marathons in the 1980s, all was forgiven. It’s Sacramento’s turn now.
– George Lang