Townshend Research Pays Off (Robert Pollard/Pearl Jam Pittsburgh Show Review)
(photos and videos courtesy of me)
There aren't enough words in the dictionary to describe how amazing the Robert Pollard/Pearl Jam show was this weekend in Pittsburgh! I had an absolute blast, in spite of the massive amount of travel and loopy logistics it took to get there. Every mile and lost minute of sleep was utterly blown away by the pure joy I felt... and still feel! And it is one concert among many that will be etched in my memory forever. But I am getting ahead of myself!
So I arrived in the motherland, my home know as the New Jersey late Wednesday night (on an unrelated tangent, David Carradine from Kill Bill was on my flight from SF to LA- between him and me, we could brutally kung fu some terrorist, if push came to shove). And I had built-in a day off on Thursday to chill out with my younger brother Dave before the big drive out to Pittsburgh. Now, Dave is the big Pearl Jam fan and I obviously am the Robert Pollard/GBV uber-fan. And his work as a high school history teacher had just wrapped for the summer. Plus, his very pregnant wife was still a ways away from her delivery timeframe, allowing my brother to bug out for a bit. So it seemed like the stars had really aligned to make this plan come together (a la the A-Team).
And the final piece in the puzzle were the tickets I procured from a very generous Settler who goes by the moniker Luke Zing. But there still was the chance that the ticket situation could get fouled up at the box office. For one, I am not Luke Zing... and they were his tickets!
Flash forward to the Mellon Arena- nicknamed "the igloo" due to its role as home for the Penguins and spherical white dome. We wait in the long will-call line and lo and behold, there is zero problem getting the tickets. And they are in the front row- nearly dead center! To top it off, the camera policy was extremely liberal. Not an eye was batted when I brought in my digital camera. I'm normally not the type who likes to take a lot of pictures at events. It really takes me out of the moment and undercuts my enjoyment. But I knew (as one of a few Bob fans present and being in the first fucking row) that it was my sworn duty to document this day!
So there we were, in the ginormous arena, the capacity 15,000 person crowd filing in behind us. Here is a clip of the pre-show stage...
I sat there nervously munching a hot dog as 7:30, the scheduled showtime, quickly approached. I am usually pretty nervous for the performers at any live show. Transference of my own stage fright, I suppose. Also had high hopes for Bob and the Ascended Masters kicking some ass in front of this possibly unfriendly mob. The two shows (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati presented a real opportunity to convert a lot of new fans into the fold.
As I waited, the venerable Rich T, tour maestro and right-hand-man put out the beer cooler and I knew showtime approacheth. Soon the lights dimmed and the fans erupted as Eddie Vedder took the stage! From what I hear, he often primes the crowd with one song before personally introducing the opening act. And this one was sweet- a cover of Hunters and Collectors' "Throw Your Arms Around Me". Here is a clip...
After the song Eddie graciously introduced Bob and the gang as I yelled out "Bob!" and "Rock!". Man, was my heart pounding- so excited to be there. The band seemed very composed, very low key and humbly playing the role of opening act, promising to get Pearl Jam up on stage as quick as possible. But hell, I was ready for some Pollard rawk!
And wow, Pollard and the Ascended Masters were super tight for their whole set. And I can't recall hearing Bob in better voice that he was that night. When I saw the band play here in San Francisco, I was in front of the left side of the stage so I had missed most of Tommy Keene's guitar work and keyboards. But in Pittsburgh, me and Dave were right between Tommy and Bob so I heard all kinds of lovely musical flourishes I didn't recall from the previous show. Perhaps some new things were added? Either way, the band sounded great and it seemed like their secret gig the night before really paid off in dividends. Maybe I should explain real quick.
The night before, Bob and the band played a rehearsal gig at Schubas in Chicago- a tiny club with only a 200 person capacity. And to keep the lid on it and not have a billion people show up, they were billed as Townshend Research! It's not the first time GBV or Bob have played a secret gig under an assumed name. But the superfans on Disarm The Settlers message board quickly figured it out (night before the first arena show, Tommy Keene opening- not too mysterious!). And from where I was sitting, the rehearsal show really fine tuned the performance to a razor sharp edge which was thrilling to behold.
Beforehand, I knew that Bob was going to perform 15 songs, 14 new ones and one classic. And I figured it would be heavy with From A Compound Eye and Normal Happiness stuff. But I didn't expect them to kick it off with Gold, the great opener to FACE which worked equally brilliantly here as a perfect slow lead into the ass-kicking to follow. Here's the video...
It was at this point that Bob bringeth the rock, slaying the crowd with the one-two punch of I Surround You Naked and Blessed In An Open Head. Then we were treated to Get A Faceful off of the forthcoming Normal Happiness. Amusingly, Bob introed the next number as a song he wrote with Carole King in 1963! And here it is...
Love this live version of Dancing Girls And Dancing Men- to my ears it has has even more pop and jump that the album version. After Dancing Girls, Bob kicked into the intensely punchy The Right Thing, another song that works even better live. Slowing things down, the band performed the concert staple Dolphins Of Color off of Circus Devils 1967 Epic Records release "Five" (at least according to Bob!). Next came one of my newest favorites Boxing About, first debuted as an instrumental track on the Bubble soundtrack and soon a fuller song on Normal Happiness. I can't wait for the fall and the release of the new solo album!
Between numbers, Bob was looking for a cigarette and being in the arena setting, there were no fans to help him out (a 10 foot gap was between us and the stage). Out of nowhere, Eddie Vedder zipped out from stage left and gave Bob a lit one! Now that's service!
Cigarette firmly in place, Bob eased into Fresh Threats Salad Shooters And Zip Guns. But then we reached the epic Conqueror of The Moon, an awesome track from FACE which completely destroys live. It starts off kinda slow but before you know it, you are on a monster rock musical journey. And was I ever happy to be along for the ride! Continuing to bring the rock, the band launched into I'm A Widow...
I Feel Gone Again (another sweet Normal Happiness track) gave us another chance to catch our breath. And then boys and girls, my little mind was blown. When Bob called "Pricks!" out I lost my shit completely and screamed like a little girl. I didn't have a clue that the classic song in the set would be Game Of Pricks. Was so expecting Don't Stop Now (the folks on DTS all had me convinced) that hearing Pricks totally floored me. And the cool thing about being up front is that I was jumping up and down, pumping my fist and yelling without a care as to what everyone was doing behind me. So from my narrow vantage point, the crowd (me and my brother) were 100% going nuts. Here is the clip (holding the camera steady while going ape-shit is hard to do!)...
The inevitable anthemic closer, Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft tied things up nicely, offering a sing-along even the uninitiated could join in on. The set went by in a flash, short but sweet. The reception by the Pearl Jam fans was polite but not terribly enthusiastic but that's totally par for the course as an opening act.
My brother had to hit the bathrooms, leaving me to happily bask in the post-performance glow. Upon returning, Dave told me that he heard mutterings from PJ fans who really enjoyed Bob and the Ascended Masters despite having no clue who they were beforehand (a sentiment borne out by recent postings on various Pearl Jam message boards). It was good to hear and I felt a lot of pride in the band that night.
Pearl Jam soon took the stage and performed a typically blistering and emotional set of classics and new material. Having only seen them once before from lawn seats in Camden, NJ, I was very impressed and quite swept away by the power and conviction of their performance. And seeing them up close was a real treat (funny though, being up close for Pollard was great- but in a way it may have been more exciting from the nosebleeds. I've seen him up close a million times in clubs and it was not readily apparent from where I sat that we were in an arena!). I managed to record for posterity my favorite PJ song Corduroy, and here it is!..
Even the newest songs sounded like potential hits. Especially moving was the audience singing the entire first verse and chorus to Better Man, Daughter segueing into With My Own Two Hands, and a wonderful cover of the Stones' Waiting On A Friend. The capper for me was the supremely empowering cover of Rockin' In The Free World, complete with a ton of smashed tambourines tossed to the crowd by Vedder.
Also of note was Eddie's tee-shirt- a Bob tour Love Really Is Stronger Than Witchcraft shirt! And Vedder was so gracious to Bob- not only introducing him as mentioned above, but honoring him with thanks at least 3 other times throughout the set. A real class act and obviously a big fan of GBV and Bob!
It was easily one of the top 5 concert experiences in my life. And it was wonderful to get to share it with Dave before he becomes a dad and disappears for the next 18 years (kidding)! A real rock and roll roadtrip for the ages.
Oh, and before I forget- the second night in Cincinnati at the US Bank Arena marked a special homecoming for Bob and the band with some unreal surprises. The setlist was changed around at Eddie Vedder's request and included the awesome Little Lines and Girls Of Wild Strawberries. And the icing on the cake was that Bob joined Pearl Jam for a cover of Baba O'Reilly! It was at that same arena (then known as the Riverfront Coliseum) that the famous 1979 riot that killed 11 Who fans occurred- and Robert Pollard was there that very night (escaping injury)! So it was only fitting that Bob's triumphant return included an amazing tribute to GBV's biggest inspiration. First time I saw this, I got some major goosebumps- wow! Here is the clip, courtesy of someone on YouTube...
Take care everyone and keep on rockin' in the free world!