My body begins to tremble with excitement as I read the e-mail:
Congratulations! Your name has been drawn for the following tickets:
10/14/2014 Memphis, TN - GA Standing
After rediscovering Pearl Jam several years ago, I will finally see them play in person. I am ecstatic.
Performing together for more than two decades, the band's success has largely been built on their live shows and extreme attention to their fans. Pearl Jam concerts are legendary for their length (often in excess of three hours), intensity (Vedder developed a reputation for climbing, running, and jumping early on), and uniqueness (the band tailors each set list based on location and current events). One of the few Seattle acts to have remained together throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Pearl Jam consistently sells out shows. Their fan organization, known as the Ten Club, provides members-only tickets through a lottery system that typically contains the best seats in the house at cheaper prices than the venue's front office. It is common at Pearl Jam concerts for the band to dedicate songs to specific fans in attendance, and often the band supports local charities.
I didn't know any of this in the early 1990s. Susceptible to the mainstream media narrative that Nirvana and Pearl Jam had some sort of antagonistic relationship, a younger and more immature version of me never gave the band a chance. I scoffed at Vitalogy when it released (without actually listening to the album start to finish) and turned a cold shoulder as the band fought against Ticketmaster. By the time I finished college, I didn't even know if they still existed.
This all changed in 2011. Confined to the couch for a sick day, I casually flipped through my options on Netflix. Landing on a documentary titled Pearl Jam Twenty by Cameron Crowe, I decided to give it a chance since Crowe had proven himself very capable with works like Say Anything and Almost Famous. Watching PJ20 changed my impression of the band entirely. Not only did I find the narrative captivating, but the music playing throughout gripped me. I had never heard the majority of it, and it did not grok with my preconception of the band. One scene in the documentary shows the band playing a live version of Release, and as I listened to the emotion in Eddie Vedder's voice goosebumps covered my arms.
The next morning I stopped early at the Walmart on my way to work and bought every Pearl Jam album in stock. Only two were available, the PJ20 soundtrack and, ironically enough, Vitalogy. In the coming days I listened to both nonstop, and then I discovered a wealth of unofficial bootlegs online. Soon I accumulated the other studio albums, from the explosiveness of Ten to the more mature Yield, as well as many of the official bootlegs.
My wife watched with growing amusement. She joked about my man crush for Eddie Vedder (but the joke was on her, I clearly had a man crush for Matt Cameron). And last Christmas I opened my stocking to find a picture of the band wearing Santa Claus hats. She had enrolled me in the Ten Club. My mind whirled with thoughts of winning tickets through their lottery, but I knew that the chances of Pearl Jam coming nearby were close to nil. The band had avoided the American Deep South for almost a decade, only playing a small scattering of festivals, and these mostly on its periphery.
Then the incredible happened, tour dates for the Lightning Bolt album revealed a stop in Memphis. Memphis! I immediately put in for tickets and waited.
It is 8:00 PM and the pit in front of the stage has filled with expectant fans. I am both excited and nervous, worried that the band will not live up to the hype I have built in my mind. My body already feels tired. Over 12 hours ago I dropped my daughter off at school, picked up my friend, and drove for hours and hours to arrive here at the FedEx Forum. My friend and I have been standing up with no more than a 20 minute break for the last eight hours. We stood in line for a concert poster. We stood in line for our armbands. We stood in line behind the people who had been camping since the day before to get into the building first. And now we are standing in the pit only an arm's-length from the rail separating us from the stage.
The crowd around me is filled with veteran Pearl Jam fans. Some of them flew from Philadelphia, or Seattle, and one drove from Chicago. When I mention that this is my first show, several congratulate me and then reveal this will be their fourth show, or 20th show, or even 30th. A firmly middle-aged couple stands in front of me, the wife recovering from cancer based on the photos they share. Another woman presses into me, obviously chemically enhanced, and continues sliding through the crowd stressing to my friend what a good time we're all going to have. A woman with a nose piercing and tattoos and only five feet of height stands behind my six-foot-two frame. And finally the lights go down.
The crowd roars as the band takes the stage. The lights stay low. I realize just how amazing my ticket is as Stone Gossard steps up to the front of the stage only a few feet from me. Behind him Boom Gaspar sits at his Hammond organ. Eddie takes the mike centerstage and in my mind I am screaming, "I am so fucking close!" Jeff Ament grabs his bass guitar on the far side of the stage from me while Mike McCready prepares his own instrument. Mike is the only one who has even the semblance of a rock star to his look. The other band members are dressed in bluejeans and comfortable T-shirts.
They start with Pendulum, a newer song off of their most recent album Lightning Bolt. I'm getting excited, the crowd's getting excited, and the band sounds good. They jump right into Wash, an older song and one of my favorites, and barely pause before beginning Lowlight, another slower paced tune that really grew on me after hearing live versions. This one is really good. I'm starting to believe the setlist for the night is going to be something special for me, and then the band rips into Why Go. The crowd is nuts, we are jumping and shouting and singing along regardless of age or ability. I've forgotten my tired legs, forgotten the hours standing in line, and only focus on the immediate moment. Eddie keeps the energy going as they play All Night, a song that only rarely pops up in concert but for some reason is played tonight, much to the delight of the crowd.
Life has nothin' to do with
So why be satisfied
We've got... all night
Matt Cameron's drumming is vibrating my entire body. Mitochondria explode in the trillions in my cells and when Pearl Jam pound out Mind Your Manners I begin to think that I will not be able to sustain a physical presence much longer, instead being blasted across the cosmos on this sonic assault.
After this sixth song, the band finally takes a moment for Eddie to comment that the crowd is getting warmed up. Eddie says, "Thanks for getting us out of the fucking Pyramid," referencing a different venue in Memphis, and then announces that the next song is as old as ancient Greece. In response, Mike tears into Even Flow. During the seven minutes that they play it, Mike steps to the very edge of the stage and alternately blasts the audience with screaming solos and handfuls of guitar pics.
The concert continues in this vein for hours. Occasionally the band will stop for a moment to relate some anecdote, such as when they joke about touring Sun Studios that morning. In the middle of the tour their guide mentioned that the day before the drummer for Pearl Jam had come in, to which the band asked who that might have been since the drummer of Pearl Jam was with them (it was actually Dave Krusen, a previous drummer, in town for the show). The light show surprises me, something often overlooked because of the quality of the music, and it really complements the mood of each song. Eddie drinks at least 2 1/2 bottles of wine, and then passes a fresh bottle out into the pit.
As ridiculous as it sounds, I begin to feel like this has become an almost holy moment. When the band plays Sirens I tear up. Eddie often reinforces his message about how life is short and to appreciate every minute, and as I see the couple holding each other in front of me I feel deeply grateful for this experience.
I pull you close, so much to lose
Knowing that nothing lasts forever
I didn't care, before you were here
I danced in laughter with the everafter
But all things change
Let this remain
I don't stay emotional for long though, because two songs later Eddie announces that they are playing an older song they don't play a lot, and it goes out to a guy named Clinton (but not Bill, he assures us). Then I hear the opening chords to the song Garden. This is one of the songs from Pearl Jam Twenty that hooked me in the first place, and I scream until my voice gives out.
Then the band plays another rare selection, Alone, where Jeff Ament lays down an amazing bass riff. I keep thinking the show can't get better. They prove me wrong by playing Wishlist, one of my favorites, next. The entire pit sings along.
I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house key on
I wish I was the pedal brake that you depended on
I wish I was the verb 'to trust' and never let you down
A few songs later they do both Let the Records Play and Spin the Black Circle in honor of the recording legacy of Memphis. In the spirit of the song, Mike actually races circuits around the stage during Spin. When the lights turn red for Black I think I'm going to get emotional again. Even songs that I'm not a fan of sound amazing. They finish the first set with Rearviewmirror, and the amount of energy and excitement poured into it has me singing along days later.
The band finally takes a break but only for a moment. They come back and play six more songs that finish with two more of my top picks, Breath and Porch. On the last one Eddie begins alone, strumming the intro riff in a slow beat that sends chills down my spine.
What the fuck is this world
Running to? You didn't
Leave a message
At least I could have
Learned your voice one last time.
During this first encore the band plays Come Back in honor of the Mars Volta band member who just died. At this point I'm sure the band must be exhausted, but they take a shorter second encore break and return for another encore of six more songs. These last six shake the building. Once, Crazy Mary, Better Man, Alive, Rockin' in the Free World, and Yellow Ledbetter all leave me completely drained after nonstop singing, shouting, and dancing. The short woman who started the evening behind me spends the entire last encore dancing in front of me and having the time of her life. We continually hit each other by accident and just laugh, apologize between breaths, and keep going.
The show lasts for three hours. My friend and I wonder if our trembling legs will get us back to the car. Driving south past Graceland, ears ringing and body vibrating, I think about what just happened. Unquestionably, I just witnessed the greatest live performance of my life. I have seen a lot of acts in concert, including Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, No Doubt, and half of Led Zepplin. I have seen Brian Setzer blow the doors off of Nashville, a town not often awed by a musical performance. But I have never seen anything like this.
When the flashing blue lights of a North Mississippi County Deputy force me to the side of the road, I want to be pissed off. I want to be angry in the knowledge that nothing I can do will save me from this out-of-state ticket in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. But I still feel electrified, and when the officer gives me a courtesy warning and sends me on my way, I have all the evidence I need that this was truly a religious experience.