Pearl Jam…In the photo pit for one of the best bands in the world.
Photos and Story by Clay Butler
Originally published in The Santa Cruz Sentinel
November 12th 2000
The first time I saw Pearl Jam they were opening up for Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 1991 New Year’s Eve show at the Cow Palace. I had no idea who they were, but I was completely blown away.
The next day I ran out and bought “Ten,” their debut album. Their music had a timeless feel, a certain familiarity. But in contrast to the glossy, over-produced hair bands of the late ’80s, they were a breath of fresh air.
Their music was not the only thing refreshing. They abandoned the music video format after producing one concept video, refused interviews, encouraged audience taping of their shows, sued Ticketmaster over high prices and monopoly practices, broadcast their concerts over local free radio, donated more than $2.2 million to causes ranging from the environment and Native Americans to education and abortion rights, released all 25 of their 2000 European concert dates as double live CD’s to undercut the inflated bootleggers’ market, and supported presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
I’d seen them up close at the Warfield and the Catalyst, from a distance at the Shoreline and Spartan Stadium. But now I was about to see them from a totally unique perspective.
It’s Tuesday, Oct. 31, and I have finally received my confirmation for a photo pass and two tickets to the Pearl Jam show at the Shoreline — a mere six hours before it starts.
I go to the will call window to pick up my tickets and, no big surprise, they’re not there.
I go into the office, where we meet up with Kaari, and, of course, they’re not there either. None of the photographer’s tickets are there.
Kaari, ever calm, cool and collected, assures us that something will work out.
“Pearl Jam doesn’t like to see photographers in front of them, so you need to pick a side of the stage and stay there,” she says. “You will not be allowed to switch between songs.”
Knowing that Eddie, the singer, has taken to playing the guitar lately and that he is right-handed … I opt for the left side.
Down near the front of the stage the photographers are given a treat. We will be allowed to shoot from the little gated area directly in front.
The lights go down, and Pearl Jam strolls onstage. The stage is dark, flush with an eerie blue light. They slowly build into “Release” from their first album. The song starts slowly and crescendos into a wall of sound.
It’s a perfect opener, and they’ve used it many times. Since it is too dark for me to shoot, I relax and take it all in.
For the next two songs, the stage is awash in bright light. Fans all know that Eddie Vedder’s face turns intense when he sings. Now with his beard and road-weary eyes, he looks like a recently thawed Neanderthal. But in a good way. In a Santa Cruz kind of way.
He’s 15 feet away, and I’m watching him through a 300 mm zoom. Very intense.
Back at the office to put away our equipment, Kaari announces that she has tickets for everyone.
“Well … they’re not the best seats,” she concedes.
“Oh well, at least they’re seats,” I reply.
My seat is in section 203, about halfway between the squinting section and the nosebleed section.
The spotlights dim and the band exits the stage, leaving Eddie front and center with a guitar. He starts playing an instrumental piece reminiscent of Rush’s “Broon’s Bane” introduction to their classic song, “The Trees.” Eddie winds down the piece and blends it seamlessly into the first chords to “Betterman.”
Next Pearl Jam launches into a ripping version of “Evenflow.” The song has always had a great crunch and groove, but tonight it’s almost metal. Before we can catch our breath, the band launches into “Jeremy.” Insane is the only to describe tonight’s version.
“Arms raised in a V … the dead lay … in pools of maroon below,” sings Eddie, and the crowd responds with raised arms.
Originally starting as a spontaneous audience gesture, the raised arms in a “V” move has become a call and response moment for Eddie and the fans.
It’s one of the few organic rock ‘n’ roll happenings, and it’s still amazing to see every time.
“Black” is next. I’ve heard the song live many times, and it still makes my scalp tingle, especially when the fans’ singing begins to overwhelm Eddie’s vocals.
Just as the last chord of “Black” begins to decay, the band smacks us in the face with their nearly speed metal jam song, “Porch.”
Lead guitarist Mike McCready rips into a flurry of wah-wahed scales, and I start to listen in on the conversation next to me.
Throughout the evening, a young family had been seriously rocking out. The son, standing on the seat behind his dad, was about 10; his sister about 14.
The father explains to his kids how you can identify a Pearl Jam song by looking for their signature riffs and interplay between the two guitarists.
Between songs they huddle to speculate on what song will be next. This young family, completely immersed into one of their favorite bands, is inspiring.
I look back to the stage and Mike McCready, at this point about halfway through the jam section, is still soloing.
Before the song is over, a young, well-dressed man/woman couple works their way toward the seats next to mine.
Without a glance at what’s happening on-stage, the woman whips out a cell phone, dials, plugs her free ear with her middle finger and begins to scream into the receiver.
Apparently just as disengaged and bored as his partner, the young man sits on the armrest of his chair and stares off into space. This continues for the next three songs.
I have no idea why people like this come to a concert.
The seats are uncomfortable, the air is cold, the parking is a nightmare and they’re indifferent, if not hostile, to the band on-stage.
Short of a court-ordered condition of parole, I’m not sure why they would bother coming at all.
After a few more songs, Vedder graces the stage with ukulele in hand.
“This song is dedicated to all the dot-commers in Silicon Valley,” Eddie announces to a response of boos.
“Hey, we got them in Seattle too,” Eddie chimes back, then sings:
“Counts his money every morning/the only thing that keeps him horny/locked in a giant house, that’s alarming the townsfolk/they all laugh/sorry is the fool who trades his love for high-rise rent.”
Accompanied only by a ukulele, “Soon Forget” feels like a 1920s ragtime ditty.
A few more songs and the band jumps into the Who-inspired “Do the Evolution.” Halfway through the song, Eddie pulls up two fans in Halloween costumes: one a George Bush dressed as an executioner and another as an Al Gore with for sale signs stapled all over his business suit.
After a minute of dancing and bobbing, Eddie grabs the ax from the Bush executioner and begins a mock execution of them both, chopping at their necks and body.
Still battling a cold I had caught from my eight-hour shoot at the Bridge School Benefit three days ago, I unfortunately had to leave early.
Boy, do I regret that. From what I understand, the band came out dressed as the Village People (complete with buttocks-exposing leather chaps) for their encore.
As fans know, Pearl Jam is not prone to wearing costumes or even attempting to dress up on or off stage. Heck, they barely have a light show.
Save for the liberal use of guitar solos, they’re almost the antithesis of what a modern rock band is supposed to be.
Industry critics often chastise Pearl Jam for their poorly managed career, the missed endorsement opportunities, the lack of MTV video support, the “low” album sales and profit-hurting idealism.
But, as any fan will tell you, this integrity is part of the charm that keeps us coming back for more.