Sometimes conditions align, Seattle condenses in cultural mass and this city becomes the center of its own self-made universe. Especially in the deep dark of winter, this damp, diminutive outpost is a world removed from the rest of the nation, wedged into the back-back of the top shelf. That's when we as a people can feel like we have nothing to prove to anyone beyond our little circle—an invigorating feeling—and we become our most defiant, most collected, most alive. To get there all we need is the right spark: for instance, 17,000 people singing "Alive" with Pearl Jam last Friday night.
Pearl Jam at Key Arena—a 23-year-old rock n roll animal let loose in its native habitat. History—and other aromas—was in the air outside the arena. The PJ guest list was reportedly 1,500 people long, and friends and family stood in an endless line at the ticket window in the bitter cold. And across the Seattle Center campus, inside a giant tent where the Fun Forest used to be, dozens of people smoked enormous joints and glass bongs and electronic vapor pens because Friday was the one-year anniversary of legal weed in Washington. People were celebrating appropriately, state-sanctioned. For many concert-goers, that was the night's first stop.
Yes, we've constructed our own louche, liberal womb for ourselves in Seattle. For a brief time on Friday night, the womb was made very real inside Key Arena.
OK, not so brief in terms of concert length. Pearl Jam played an epic, three-plus-hour set, exhaustive and exhausting, spanning hits, rarities and covers, jamming tightly on songs well beyond their recorded performances. If you like Pearl Jam it was the band at its best; if you were reticent about Pearl Jam it was an opinion-changer. For a band to put so much of itself into a show, and to do so with equal gratitude and gusto, was undeniably endearing.
Pearl Jam hasn't made an important album since the late '90s. Song-wise, they've stayed put on top of the mountain they climbed in their first 10 years, satisfied to yarl out their classic rock anthems to whatever record-buying public is left in the world. (Once in awhile Vedder will release solo ukulele album, as much to cleanse the palate as to weed out the diehards from the middlers.)
Their concerts, however, are monumental. Everyone knows that. Maybe the only reason they still make albums is to provide a rationale to tour. In 2013, very few arena-rock bands remain. Pearl Jam plays the role impeccably. It's an important one, a potential bridge between the 50-something-year-old skate dads and all their begrudgingly curious teenage offspring in the audience.
Their first show in Seattle in four years, they played 30-some songs with ballsy confidence and visible joy. The stage was bare, open, minimal and flat, just a stage, not some big-budget ornament or conceptual special effect. During an acoustic interlude, a drop ceiling was lowered to provide a more intimate feel; Vedder played a sweet, surprising solo rendition of the Velvet Underground's "After Hours" under it, and was then joined by Jeff Ament on an acoustic upright for seveal songs. Later, the band electric again, basketball-sized pendant lightbulbs descended from the rafters, which the band swung by hand like pendulums barely missing each other. Vedder climbed one like a rope swing, courting just enough danger to recall his speaker-stack ascends of decades past.
Here's how I feel about the song selection: All the songs I knew were awesome and the rest were fine. They played every Pearl Jam classic you can think of (except "Jeremy"—too dark for this occasion?) and a few favorite deep cuts, plus another dozen or so others, and then some more. They covered Mother Love Bone, songs from Singles that I hadn't thought about in over a decade. Their energy and precision was stunning. Too many musical highlights in 200 minutes to enumerate; don't see this band if you fear singing along out loud at the top of your lungs. Mike McCready played guitar behind his back; he played "Eruption" by Van Halen; he embodied the lead-guitar preen more than previously. Keyboardist Boom Gaspar wore a Steven Hauschka jersey. During the second encore, Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden came onstage for a cover of "Kick out the Jams." The full list is below, compiled by someone more meticulous than me.
Over the course of the concert, Vedder shouted out a laundry list of Seattle-isms: the Seahawks, the Mariners, the Sonics (the team), the Sonics (the band), Macklemore, legal pot, legal gay marriage, Easy Street Records, KEXP. "Feels good to live in a place that's on the right side of history, doesn't it?" he asked. For the last 20 minutes, more than three hours since the start of the show, the band played with the house lights on. We could all see each other singing along, lit up in this weird world we've made out here, together.
Photo by Morgan Keuler