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Madison Square Garden New York City, NYd

Pearl Jam

Release Date: July 9, 2003
Record label: Pearl Jam
Genre(s): Country Western

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Still Rockin' in the Free World
by: steven jacobetz

"This is the best band in the world!" Ben Harper said onstage during a guest appearance at the first night of a two-night Pearl Jam stand at Madison Square Garden. That statement is debatable, but as far as the 90s generation goes, it would be hard to argue. Having been at the second night, it is undeniable that when you're in the same building with the band and part of the amazingly intense, floor-shaking energy of the live show, it is an experience not soon forgotten.

When the tour itinerary was first released, these two shows at MSG were the final ones of the tour. As a result, there was a massive demand for fan club tickets as diehards converged on New York City to party. (Lead singer Ed Vedder mentioned at one point during the last night that fan club numbers were 7000 the first night, and 8000 the second night.) More tour dates were added, so this was not the tour-ending celebration which was anticipated. Still, fan turnout meant that 40% of the audience on the second night was hardcore devotees

The energy of the crowd made the floor and the stage shake. This phenomena scared the band to death at first, but MSG staff told Vedder during the first night that it was safe, so Ed encouraged it the second night. Ed was told that only The Grateful Dead, Iron Maiden, and Bruce Springsteen had caused the stage to shake like that in the past, so that's the company Pearl Jam is in now.

With so many hardcore fans in attendance, it was somewhat foreseeable that the first night's set would be rather peculiar and idiosyncratic. Eight songs were played from last year's Riot Act album, as well as rarities such as Mother Love Bone's "Crown of Thorns," and "Breath" from the soundtrack to the 1992 Cameron Crowe-directed movie Singles.

Fortunately, the set list for the second night at MSG was much more balanced and friendlier to general audiences. No guests on this night, but a better show to attend for a first-timer at a Pearl Jam concert, with the inclusion of old familiar favorites like "Alive" "Corduroy", and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." No more than four songs were played from any one album, which is ideal for a good overview of a 13-year career.

That's not to suggest that that there weren't any surprises. The band shocked much of the crowd as soon as it hit the stage by opening with a cover of "Crazy Mary" by Victoria Williams. This move wasn't unprecedented, but unanticipated. Considering the high visibility of homeless people in NYC, this tale of the life and death of a mentally-disturbed, alcoholic was fitting in retrospect. Instrumentally, the song has become a particular favorite, with a feature organ solo from the new keyboardist Boom. The interplay between the guitars and keyboards is great to hear. It is an element the band lacked to its detriment on past tours.

Another surprise happened midway through the main set when Vedder placed a cell phone call to Johnny Ramone of the legendary New York punk band the Ramones. Unfortunately, Johnny was not home to get the call, so he didn't hear the cover of the Ramones' "I Believe in Miracles" the band was about to play. The punk influence was especially evident this show, with a cover of "Know Your Rights" by the Clash in the 2nd encore as well. It was also great to see some older songs like "Deep" from Ten and "Glorified G" from Vs which were brought back this year after long absences. Pearl Jam believes in the idea of leaving no songs behind (Well, very few anyway.)

From a vantage point three rows from the very top, it was difficult to distinguish individual parts. Fortunately, official recordings of all shows from the tour can be ordered from www.pearljambootlegs.com in order to get a better sense of those details. However, the house mix seemed to get clearer as the concert progressed.

Here are some impressions one can get only from being there. It was entertaining just to watch lead guitarist Mike McCready go in circles and run all over the place as the band launched into more upbeat numbers like "Save You" "Hail Hail" and "Whipping." McCready's frantic movement is even more noticeable when compared to the basically sedentary state of all the others. Yet, when McCready had a showcase solo, like in a great long version of "Even Flow," he became surprisingly still. Overall, he seemed to move less than what has been reported from other shows.

It was a night for serious concentration and musicianship. No political talk at this show. Vedder was in fine form and had very few of the lyrical flubs that are usually all too common for him. He considered climbing the lighting rig during "Porch" like in times past, but thought better of it. Those days are over now. Some fans don't seem to understand, though. Ed made a big fuss over a rude request sign by a fan trying to insult the band into playing "Leash." However, lyrics like "Drop the leash, we are young. Get out of my f-ing face" don't resonate with the band members when they're pushing 40. Some things are best left in the past. Like the song says, "It makes much more sense to live in the present tense."

There's a great sense of communal joy being with a large crowd of people that knows all the words and knows the cues in the songs-Arms spread during "Given to Fly"; mock prayer during the "Hallelujah" section of "Do the Evolution"; Raise your fist during the "Hey, Hey" chant during "Porch" Chant "YEAH,YEAH" on the snare drum beat of the outro to "Alive" etc. It's great to be part of an audience that gets the point.

Speaking of "Alive," this is a song that should be an everyday fixture. It's the band's signature song. The Stones play "Satisfaction" every night. The Who play "My Generation" every night. Led Zeppelin played "Stairway to Heaven" every night. Pearl Jam should play "Alive" every night. It's that big. It is incomprehensible that it is played only half the time.

"Better Man" is another song like that. Unfortunately, it was not repeated from night one. There are just some fundamental songs that should never be messed with. After all, it's an honor and privilege to write a song that gets that big and touches millions of people. Show those songs off with pride as permanent fixtures.

After allegedly having to pay a $14,000 fine for going over curfew and playing nearly to midnight the first night, the band started and finished earlier this time, but the set was the same number of songs. In Vedder's words, the challenge was to make the second night as intense as the first one. As the band bowed and waved goodbye after 30 songs and nearly three hours, it could be stated firmly that Pearl Jam rose to the occasion. If the band isn't the best in the world, it's certainly close. Hopefully they'll be a contender for that title for many years to come. 15-Jul-2003 8:50 AM