I very rarely attend concerts in venues that hold more than a few hundred people. For me to go to an arena show is almost unheard of. But when Pearl Jam hit the Q on Sunday, I was there. They're the only band I would not hesitate to shell out the money for to see at an arena show. (They're not quite my favorite band, not anymore, but none of the handful of bands I like better would have any business playing an arena.) Pearl Jam are actually the only band to be counted among my favorites in middle school, in high school, in college, and still today, as my tastes in music have changed quite a bit over those years. This was my third time seeing them live, and they can always be counted on for a great show.
Opener Band of Horses played a good set. I hadn't really listened to them before. They reminded me somewhat of My Morning Jacket, who opened for Pearl Jam the last time I saw them, although I'd say I prefer MMJ. The highlight of BoH's set was "The Funeral" (I had not heard the song before, but recognized the title).
When Pearl Jam took the stage, the excitement in the arena was palpable. To my surprise, I didn't immediately recognize the first song they played. Once it clicked, though, a wide, somewhat shocked, grin appeared on my face. They opened with "Wash," an old B-side and not a song I would have expected to hear at all. And it was a stunning opener.
A cool thing about Pearl Jam's website is that you can view setlists for every show they've played (here is the Cleveland setlist), and you can also view a list of every time that any given song has been played. So I can see that before Sunday, "Wash" had only been played once live since 2006. Talk about good luck! And that was just the beginning.
Pearl Jam always mix up their sets a lot, with a good mix of their big radio hits, tracks from their recent album, and older fan favorites. At any show, there's a good chance you'll hear a song or two that rarely comes up in their live rotation. Of course, some of those songs are better than others. If I had been tasked before the concert with making a list of songs I most wanted to hear Pearl Jam play live, "Sleight of Hand," a track from the under-rated album Binaural, would have been near the top. It had been played just twice since 2006, barely more than "Wash." Partway through the concert, Eddie went into a description of the next song, saying something about people going to work and living their lives while putting on false exteriors... I don't really remember exactly what he said, but the description sounded familiar. Sleight of Hand, Sleight of Hand... I silently pleaded... and then they played "Sleight of Hand," and I was floored. It's one of Pearl Jam's more experimental tracks, incredibly atmospheric in sound, and fantastic live. After that, and "Wash," and lots of other great songs like "Corduroy," "In Hiding," and "Immortality" (which would have thrilled me even more than "Sleight of Hand" did, except they also played it last time in Cleveland), this was already my favorite Pearl Jam concert yet.
They ended up playing for almost two and a half hours. Pearl Jam have a reputation for being a great live band, and it's well earned. They've been around for twenty years, and they're still capable of rocking out with high energy for two-plus hours a night, while putting together truly unique sets for every show. Eddie Vedder and company truly deserve to be thought of as rock legends.
In the second encore, I was delighted to hear "Black" and "Alive" - yeah, they're the big radio hits, but that's due largely to them being genuinely great songs. It was also great to hear "Smile," another of those tracks that doesn't come up so often live, although it had been played the last time in Cleveland. "Smile" was a fan request, and Eddie had the woman who was holding a sign for it come up to the front of the crowd when they played it. He then gave her his harmonica after he was done with it for the song. Lucky girl!
So it was a night packed with fantastic performances, but there was one more surprise in store for me, and it was the best of all. That list I might have made, on which "Sleight of Hand" would have appeared? "Indifference" would have been at the top. And the last song they played? After "Alive," I was expecting "Yellow Ledbetter" to close the show. When I realized they were in fact closing with "Indifference," I got giddy. The last track on Pearl Jam's second album, Vs., it's my favorite Pearl Jam song ever, and one of my favorite songs period. The mood the song creates, and Eddie's vocals ("I'll swallow poison until I grow immune/I will scream my lungs out 'til it fills this room")... wow. It was the perfect way to end an amazing evening.