Play-by-play: Eddie Vedder, Nov. 1, The Pearl
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After an invigorating opening performance from Glen Hansard (The Swell Season, the movie Once), Eddie Vedder walks on The Pearl stage and, with his acoustic guitar, launched right into his band Pearl Jam's 1993 hit, "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town." From the very first verse, the sold-out crowd sings every word along with him, both performer and audience full-throated and not missing a beat. OK, he gets a hit out of the way, what now?
Then, he takes an electric guitar and played Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage." Wait, no ukulele? Isn't this a ukulele show?
Then, Vedder picked up the ukulele (finally!) and energetically strums out ... Cat Stevens' "Trouble." Hmm. A hit and two covers. Is Vedder attempting the rock version of the Garth Brooks Wynn residency show?
Then, five songs in a row from his recent Ukulele Songs album, received well by a crowd that clearly heard the album, or just likes campfire-type songs, or, shockingly, knows how to behave at a quiet show headlined by a contemplative songwriter. One small scare: Before he plays the fifth of the five, "Light Today," Vedder complains about the loop of the ocean not being audible, and it's here I wonder if the show begins to fall apart. A flick of the reel-to-reel player to the singer's left, a roar of the waves, and we're back.
Then, another false note: Vedder not only refers to his host city as "Vas Legas," but admits it has "never been one of my favorite places." Some boos. "...but I grew up never feeling lucky. Didn't think this was the place for me." He saves face by complementing the venue ... and sarcastically making light that he is playing a place called The Pearl.
Then, he shines a light in the crowd for Jason Baldwin, sitting right in front of me. Baldwin is one of the West Memphis Three, who last year was released from an 18-year stay in jail after prosecutors took a second look at the evidence and reached an agreement for the trio's much-clamored-for release. For long-time WM3 advocate Vedder, it's an emotional moment, but much more so for Baldwin, grinning ear to ear and clutching his loved one. A genuinely touching moment, inside a Las Vegas casino.
Then, after two more Pearl Jam songs, and two more instances of extended banter (including a rant against Mitt Romney), he tells the story of his trip to Lake Mead with Sean Penn's family, right after the release of Into the Wild, which Penn directed and Vedder soundtracked. They had emerged from the Colorado River and found themselves in a restaurant, where Penn's wife at the time, Robin Wright, happened to noticed the song playing in the dining room was exactly the same song the movie-watcher hears when the Christopher McCandless character from Into the Wild exits the same river. You could hear a pin drop inside The Pearl during Vedder's story.
Then, Hansard joins Vedder for "Long Nights," and, two songs later, Vedder nails Cat Power's heartbreaking "Good Woman" on the same stage where Cat Power also played the same song. At this point, I give up trying to recall an acoustic/one-man show that's gone over this well, or been this engaging, in my 10 years of Vegas concertgoing.
Then, PJ keyboardist Boom Gaspar takes to Vedder's ol' pump organ for PJ chestnut "Betterman." "He's our big man, our Clarence [Clemons]," says Vedder, which somehow segues into a spectacularly epic and tangental rant that includes California's Proposition 37 (a measure for the labeling of genetically modified food), this year's election commercials, Honey Boo Boo, the GOP and former FEMA director Michael Brown, the latter whom he excoriates so viciously, Vedder ends by saying he would stick Brown's head in a bucket of his dog's shit and then apologize to his dog for defiling the beast's "organic creation." Loud applause follows. Henry Rollins would be proud.
Then, a beautiful version of PJ's "Unknown Thought" and a blistering go at longtime crowd favorite "Porch" that, despite missing the other four band members, earns Vedder a sustained standing ovation. I applaud for every Pearl Jam fan I know who will be kicking themselves for not attending this. Vedder takes it in, beams and leaves the stage.
Then, the encore starts. Vedder announces the website of Heal EB, a cause dedicated to fighting and curing epidermolysis bullosa, a debilitating connective tissue disease, and suggests that the casino winners out there consider making a donation. One man walks right up to the stage and delivers a hundred dollar bill, which Vedder happily takes. Then, a woman in the front stands up and announces that she'll donate $5,000 if Vedder will play Pearl Jam's monster hit "Black," which he has yet to play at a solo show. Vedder smiles, stammers a bit, explains he'd do it except he doesn't know how to play it, and tells the woman to hang tight, he'll figure something out.
Then, after a pair of songs, two more covers with Hansard (including The Everly Brothers' "Sleepless Nights," sans microphones), a gorgeous go at The Swell Season's Oscar-winning "Falling Slowly" (with Vedder filling in for Marketa Irglova), and two covers with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines (in honor of the West Memphis Three, also a cause Maines champions), Vedder brings out Gaspar again and the two finally attempt "Black." After a mis-start, the duo carefully susses out the beginning and finds its groove, the audience joining in with another roof-raising vocal performance. It takes over the falsetto trail-off, at which point Vedder, on the verge of tears, turns the mic around and sits right in front of the crowd before leaving the stage. A goose-pimpling moment.
Then, assuming nothing could top that and waiting for the house lights to turn on, Vedder returns. Audience members rush the stage and hand Vedder gobs and gobs of cash for Heal EB. Chuffed, the singer says, "Handing me cash while I'm in Las Vegas -- now that's trust." He tells the audience he'll never forget this night, and ends the show with a lights-on, all-star jam with Hansard, Maines and Gaspar, for the Into the Wild anthem "Hard Sun." That makes twenty-eight songs (at least one of them not on the setlist) in two hours and 20 minutes, which, according to the venue's publicist, was almost an hour longer than the show from the night before.
And that, readers, concluded the best rock concert of 2012.