Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Last Great Arena Rock Band: Pearl Jam at the Los Angeles Sports Arena

What is the rollicking, raucous racket; this primal (if not also primeval) force; this life force and (sometimes) death channel; this lifter of spirit and lowerer of inhibitions; this creator of relationships and destroyer of eardrums; this (formerly) reviled and now (virtually) taken-for-granted quasi-art form known as rock and roll?
                As I age, I question whether I should find it empowering and soul-nourishing.  I even question whether I (or anyone else) should have listened to it in the first place.  (I read with interest the musings of a rock fan—and player—who wondersif it was and is a cultural mistake.)  But there is no question that it still nourishes even my famished, arid, shipwrecked body and soul (which is saying something).  Perhaps it is too much a part of our culture—and, ineluctably and inexorably, my cultural experience—for me to cast off my own personal history and subconscious attachment to it at this point.  I do not know.  For better or worse, it will be part of the vestiges, the dying embers, of Western civilization for as long as their evanescent glow continues to faintly illuminate its final generations.  I still find its integration of lyrics and music—by singers and players performing their own songs (unlike previous chanteurs and chantesues in civilization’s ebb and flow) to fill an important void.  One of the most skillful (and successful) groups to perfect this art is Pearl Jam.
                I attended both of Pearl Jam’s concerts (each unique, like every Pearl Jam concert) at the Los Angeles Sports Arena over the weekend.  Each was a state of the art integration of sound and visuals from band and crew.  Over the course of the two nights, the band played all of the songs from their latest album, Lighting Bolt (Monkeywrench/Republic, 2013) except one; a remarkable cross section of their back catalogue; and a number of their favorite covers (I doubt anyone else covers Van Halen and the Velvet Underground).  Probably coincidentally, both concerts were two hours and fifty-six minutes long.  The Pearl Jam live experience is the last great amalgam of arena rock art in the culture.  Perhaps it is the most superlative of them all, the salvaged acme of a decades-long mistake.
                Appropriately enough, Pearl Jam is a synthesis of many genres and subgenres.  They synthesized the most salient virtues of their diverse influences while dropping said influences’ superfluous heavy baggage.  Like so many late period synthesizing non-innovators, they nonetheless improved on the work of the innovators.  Both weekend concerts at the Sports Arena underscored those virtues (while offering scarcely an eyeful or earful of their mentor’s vices).  (On the subject of vices: Gene Simmons was in the audience on Sunday night.)
                Fusing the arena rock of KISS, the classic rock of Led Zeppelin, the punk rock of the Dead Boys, the folk rock of Bob Dylan, the hard rock of Deep Purple, the funk rock of the Red Hot Shitty Peppers, the primordial all-of-the-above of The Who, the singer-songwriter aesthetic of Neil Young, and having it all mislabeled as “grunge,” the band exploded into national consciousness at the last possible moment for a band that melded introspective art and rock bombast.  No other band has done it quite like that, before or since.  Their debut album Ten dropped just a few months before Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the #1 spot of the Billboard 200 and the nineties began, and if there was anything worth defining about the last decade of comparative freedom and culture before civilization’s final implosion, Pearl Jam defined it.  They were and are the last great rock band to achieve massive commercial success before American culture imploded a few years afterward.
                In the studio, they ran the gamut of styles and emotions and themes (if not ideas), from the warm burr of “Low Light” and the beginning of “Release” to the larynx-tearing of the end of “Release” and the tirade “Blood;” from the lugubrious, histrionic dirge of “Once” to the benevolent, avuncular, dulcet lullabye of “Around the Bend;” from the (not entirely consistent) contented egoism of "I Am Mine" to the hoplophobic, country grunge farrago of “Glorified G;” from the committed commitment and anti-fence-sitting of "Got Some" to the puissant, presto intransigence of “Whipping” and the straightforward, adagio intransigence of “No Way” to the contemplative, andante intransigence of “Indifference;” from the despair of “Black” to the resilience of “Down” to the euphoria of “Given to Fly” (much less an act of plagiarism than many “original” Led Zeppelin songs).  On stage in Los Angeles all of the aforementioned exemplars of late rock save “Glorified G,”“Around the Bend,” and “Whipping” had at least one airing during the two gigs.  The band, as usually, brought improvisation and “playing in the moment” (as frontman Vedder would call it) to the embalmed strictures of arena rock—without losing the basic bedrock of fixed song arrangements and collapsing into pathological jam band indulgence and over-extemporaneousness.
                Like the genre they capped and perfected, they have their foibles, and those should be acknowledged at the outset (they were evident during their November 2013 weekend in Los Angeles).  Intellectually and politically, they are very much children of their times (like most artists).  I will be the last to defend (most of) their horrendous (and sometimes absurd) leftist politics.  Eddie Vedder’s lyrics sometime border on impressionism, and they not infrequently bristle with platitudinous Endarkenment claptrap (“I don’t want to think, I want to feel;” “can’t defend fucked up man;” etc.).  They are not virtuosi.  Even by rock standards, there are far more skillful musicians to be found.  Many rock fans find them soporific, and they are not to all tastes (even rock tastes).  But contemplative consumers devoted to art (in a culture devoid of it) with a tolerance for post-jazz popular music could not find a better band.  As with all flawed entities in a dark culture teetering (and about to totter) on the brink of insanity, their foibles are not salient (and politics isn't everything).  What is salient is the melody, idealism, passion, and integrity they exude—to that extent, they are not children of their unfortunate times.  (I wish I had paid closer attention to them sooner.  Agreeing with their friends and Seattle neighbors in L7 that “the masses are asses,” I thought for sure that any “grunge” band that achieved mass popularity after their other neighbors Queensr├┐che—and that helped to grant Queensr├┐che in an undeserved reputation of anachronism and irrelevance—could possibly warrant any more than trivial interest.  Proving—again—that it is impossible to be consistently wrong, the asses who are the masses were right about Pearl Jam.  They have not been so right since.)
                While every Pearl Jam concert is as heterogeneous as their catalog, Saturday night’s, from  (usually) benevolent Uncle Eddie’s opening invocation of “Release” to the closing resolve of “Indifference” (which is anything but indifferent, in general)  was more stern, serious, and contemplative.  Vedder didn’t talk as much as he usually does.  He did mention the fact that it was their friend Bruce Springsteen—who, like them, loathes the sterile, antiseptic, corporate Staples Center—who recommended they play the old, quaint, smallish Sports Arena.  He noted that they had only played there once before, twenty-two years ago (he mistakenly said twenty-three), opening, with Nirvana, for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  (He thanked the four of them—and especially original drummer Jack Irons, who introduced Vedder to the rest of Pearl Jam and later joined—and left  Pearl Jam--for “taking [them] under their wing.”)  He also recognized the under-recognized monitor mixer Karrie Keyes in her hometown (without whom the band would sound as bad as their detractors think they sound).  During and immediately after the arena rock standard “Corduroy” (one of the comparatively few songs performed both nights—see below for full setlists), he vehemently demanded that an apparently unruly gal be ejected from the general admission pit in front of the stage.  He is evidently still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the 2000 Roskilde festival (when the band walked offstage in horror when they were told that several fans were being trampled to death in the general admission crowd); he alluded to that debacle the following night when a guy in  the pit needed medical attention (he was eventually fine).  To see and hear Vedder’s righteous, voluble, and profane imperiousness  was to see palpable scars seared into the frontman’s consciousness; he sounded like a man concerned about the prospect of imminent death.  His truculent scolding contributed an edge to the evening’s art and entertainment that was absent the following night.  Later, he did gently chide the alleged miscreant when she had moved to the side of the floor: “It’s OK, you can watch the show over there.”  To the rest of us: “She needed Johnnie Cochran to defend her, and it was getting to be a PROBLEM.”  The rest of the night did retain something of a pensive ambivalence.  At one point, Vedder mentioned how execrable 2013 was (if only he knew) and noted that the band would donate “some of the dough” from the night’s gross to Filipino friends and typhoon victims who were in attendance.  At another point, he denigrated George Zimmerman and called for "a few basic" gun laws (adding that, "I don't think I'm offending anybody").  The only "offense" I took was that someone whom I thought was generally sane and stable (especially compared to some of his peers and epigones) could think that the United States has not had "a few basic gun laws," and more, for decades.
One exception to Saturday's solemnity was a surprise cover of Van Halen’s signature guitar solo piece “Eruption” by guitarist Mike McCready.  In theory (and in practice, in the context of the ephemeral live experience), this worked fine, lightened the mood, and was an illustrative example of Frank Zappaesque contrast and relief.  It reminded some of the duller and more obscurantist “hipsters” in the audience that Pearl Jam’s diverse influences include some of flamboyant, “wanking” dinosaurs they allegedly made obsolete.  (Vedder joked that he woke up early in the morning because he had the misfortunate of having a room right above or below the other guitarist’s: “this is what I heard at 8AM.”  After the finger tapping exercise, Vedder waggishly exclaimed, “Good morning, campers!”)  However, while McCready is a stellar guitarist by mainstream, post-eighties standards (and is probably the best musician in the band, with the possible exception of their current drummer, Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden), he is not Edward Van Halen in technical skills.  I suspect that listening to a playback of the performance would reveal the band’s limitations; perhaps there is a limit to diversity.  The band of all trades is a master of few.  Saturday night ended perfectly with 1993's "Indifference" including the new lyric, "I won't change direction, but I might change my mind" (it was, "I won't change direction, and I won't change my mind").  It is a sensible change that does not undercut the song's uncompromising theme.
                Sunday night was more jocose.  Gene Simmons, a seminal influence on the band, was in attendance with his son (Vedder acknowledged him from the stage in the concert’s final moments). Vedder played more guitar (and more Pete Townshend windmills), Stone Gossard played more lead guitar, and the band performed more covers (particularly Pink Floyd covers, for whatever reason).  (It is unlikely that Vedder could drink anymore wine than he had the previous night, though, and this is troubling for those who hope he can continue to preserve his voice.)  My vantage point shifted from the reserved seating area near the back of the floor to the first row behind the stage (one of the best seats in the house).  It is fascinating to watch this band and their crew from behind the stage.  From the back of the floor, not much besides Lighting Director Kille Knobel’s lights is visible without the aid of video screens (her multicolored lights remind the viewer that one is viewing a state-of-the-art arena rock concert—they contrast with the near-chaotic flux of audibles and improvisations that often comprise the aural aspects of the show).  (The only criticism of the lights: a repeated, rather puerile effect in which some of the more recognizable profane lyrical outbursts--e.g., "seemed a harmless, little fuck"--are highlighted and emphasized by intense white or yellow lights.  I do not know if this is lighting director or band's decision, but whoever is responsible--ultimately the latter--should know better.)  One row behind the stage, one can see the focused chemistry that Vedder, McCready, second guitarist Gossard, and bass guitarist (and upright bassist) Jeff Ament have developed over twenty-two years of touring (more recent additions Cameron and keyboardist Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar have integrated themselves admirably over the last fifteen years and ten years, respectively).  One can see the crew sedulously switching, tuning, and maintaining the instruments as well as Vedder’s lyric cheat sheets.  (The temperamental Vedder, visibly disgusted, tossed an apparently out-of-tune 12-string acoustic guitar at one of the beleaguered techs—I think his name is Scully—during the new song “Sirens.”)  And one can see the devotion of the fans on the other side of the stage, with signs emblazoned with song requests to requests for the band to perform an Israel to appreciation for “Matt Fucking Cameron.”  For this spectator, it is the best view in the house.  From the metaphysical bliss of “Oceans” to rarely performed songs like “Amongst the Waves” (some members of the band obviously went surfing earlier in the day) and the paean to idealism “No Way” to the closing celebration of “Rockin’ in the Free World” (played with the house lights on), it was more of a celebration than the previous show.  Exceptions?  The dolorous “Daughter” (with its improvised Pink Floyd vocal tag) was one.  (Fascinatingly, Vedder sang, “Preacher, leave those kids alone,” proving that he can change Roger Waters’s lyrics as much as his own.)  They covered Pink Floyd often: some of “Interstellar Overdrive” led into “Corduroy” earlier (as it occasionally does), and a rarer, fuller rendition of “Mother” was a highlight of the first encore.  The first encore of the second night was the highlight of the weekend.  Vedder mourned the loss of his friend Lou Reed prior to a solo electric rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours.”  That was immediately followed by the gentle, new “Sleeping By Myself,” with Vedder on ukulele (it could have used Ament’s upright bass, but, if my memory and notes serve, he played a Fender on this one).  Earlier in the evening, McCready’s “Even Flow” solo was sui generis, as always (the classic was omitted the previous night); “Daughter”’s solo is more embalmed (and he just about did it justice).  The anthemic “Given to Fly” (described as “a fairy tale” the previous night) and “Porch” returned (the latter in its familiar spot at the close of the first encore), with green lamps suspended from the odd lighting rig (it resembled a junkyard midden)  and a frontman swinging from one of them.
                At the top of the second encore, the band graciously played a song for the rear-stage audience: their overrated cover of Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss” (it was still welcomed).  Cameron stood behind a tiny kit, Vedder stood behind him on the drum riser, and the three guitarists joined the drummer.  After they returned to the front, an uncommon and uncommonly passionate cover of The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” was a highlight of the second encore, Vedder's wine-soaked voice still soaring and intact (for now).
                In an Endarkenment, it is easy for the few who understand that it is an Endarkenment to turn to despair.  It can also be difficult to enjoy and cherish the pockets of enlightenment that continue to exist (especially if many of them are tinctured with elements of endarkenment themselves).  Perhaps the entire rock genre will be seen, in hindsight, as a mistake by a more civilized, rational culture.  As long as it is still here, however, and as long as the culture is amoral, cynical, and amateurish, and slipshod, few Pearl Jam fans are more thankful for the band’s flourishing, resilience, integrity, melody, and idealism (however misplaced it sometimes is) than this one.

Jeffrey Falk
Somewhere in the City of Los Angeles
Thanksgiving, 2013

Pearl Jam
Los Angeles Sports Arena
Los Angeles
Saturday, November 23, 2013
2013 Tour (for Lightning Bolt)

Long Road
Lightning Bolt
Mind Your Manners
Why Go
Got Some
Do the Evolution
I Got ID
State of Love and Trust
Spin the Black Circle

Yellow Moon
All or None
Come Back
I Believe in Miracles
Given to Fly

Unthought Known
Baba O'Riley

Pearl Jam
Los Angeles Sports Arena
Los Angeles
Sunday, November 24, 2013
2013 Tour (for Lightning Bolt)

Low Light
Present Tense
Interstellar Overdrive
Lightning Bolt
Amongst the Waves
My Father's Son
Given to Fly
Swallowed Whole
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Future Days
Even Flow
Do the Evolution
Mind Your Manners
No Way

Better Man/Save It For Later
Daughter/Another Brick In the Wall Part II
After Hours
Sleeping By Myself

Last Kiss
Unthought Known
Love, Reign O'er Me
Rockin' in the Free World