"Pearl who?" we thought, and then this grunge band led by a voice so incredibly raw and forceful took the stage proceeded to tear the roof off the place. Just a few months later, following the release of their debut album, Ten, they would be the biggest rock band on the planet.
But on that night, I would have never imagined that 20 years later, I would be sitting in the Fabulous Fox Theater eagerly awaiting a solo appearance by the legendary Vedder -- stripped of all of Pearl Jam's heavy riffs and drum beats -- alone with his instruments and that instantly-recognizable voice that has become so ingrained in the rock & roll culture.
Vedder's rare St. Louis appearance Friday night was part of a North American tour to promote his new, very "Un-Pearl Jam-esque" album Ukulele Songs. He was joined on the bill by Irish singer/songwriter/guitarist Glen Hansard of the bands the Frames and the Swell Season, most well known as the star of the sweet independent film Once, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for his tune "Falling Slowly."
As a fan of Hansard and the Swell Season, I was equally excited by his appearance and the fact that the two would perform several songs together based on the reviews and set lists from previous shows on this tour.
Hansard took the stage alone with his guitar promptly at 7:30 p.m. to a nearly packed house. As I tried to focus on the sound of his voice, I was unfortunately distracted by the chatter of the people sitting directly behind me who showed a complete lack of respect by talking through his entire set. (I will never understand why people pay to see a concert then talk through the whole thing.) Nonetheless, his soulful voice and the pounding of his guitar strings rose above the din.
Hansard's sound is at once new and original while being a throwback to classic rock singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens and fellow Irishman Van Morrison. In fact, Hansard covered Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" (and stunningly so), alternately plucking his guitar gently and strumming it so hard that I thought the strings might break. The raw power of his voice was also evident on the song "Leave" from the Once soundtrack.
Before finishing his brief set, Hansard took a moment to tell the inspiring story of how he and Eddie met following a great tragedy. He explained how, last summer, as the Swell Season was performing an outdoor show at a San Francisco Bay Area winery, a young man committed suicide by jumping from the roof onto the stage to his death, landing at Hansard's feet in front of nearly 2,000 horrified fans.
The band was obviously traumatized by this event and the following day, Hansard received a phone call. He answered and a deep voice said, "Hello, this is Eddie Vedder. Do you have a minute to talk?" The star-struck Hansard of course said "yes" and proceeded to have an hour-long conversation with Vedder, who consoled and comforted him in the wake of the tragedy. Hansard declared his surprise when the next day and the day after that, he received calls again from Vedder.
The two formed an instant bond and Vedder told him to look him up should he ever make it to Seattle. They got together a few months later and Vedder eventually asked Hansard to both play on his new album and join his tour. Hansard said he was eternally grateful to have had such a positive relationship come out of something so tragic and the anecdote was an early indication of how caring a person Vedder is in addition to being a great musician.
As Vedder followed, taking the stage quietly and picking up his ukulele, screams and cheers roared across the audience and he received a standing ovation before he even played a note. After opening with "Waving Palms," a soft tune from the new album, he motioned for everyone to be seated. He then proceeded to delight everyone present with more than two hours of music from his solo work to covers to Pearl Jam classics, all the while telling stories and bantering with the audience, saying how happy he was to play in such a "beautiful room and beautiful-sounding room."
One thing to note was that this performance had several "set changes" and even a playbill-like program listing bios on everyone involved with the tour, a full list of Vedder's gear and more. The "sets" changed from a simple curtain to a painted cityscape background, to a warehouse to, finally, a beach scene. From the get-go, it was plain this was no ordinary "rock concert," but almost had more of the vibe of a Broadway show. There were no cameras of any kind allowed and the Fox staff was adamant about enforcing it, letting folks know Vedder would not even tolerate cell phone photos.
All of this added to the overall feeling of exclusivity -- the true privilege of watching this iconic musician bare his soul so intimately in a way most Pearl Jam fans have never seen. All in all, he played more than 30 songs, even making special dedications to local fans during the show. He singled out a gentleman who was a victim of the tornado in Joplin and had lost everything, dedicating the lovely Pearl Jam tune "I Am Mine" to him and making him a promise that the Pearl Jam community would stay in touch and assist him as best they could.
He dedicated "Just Breathe" to a young couple expecting their first child that were tremendously excited about their new bundle of joy, but saddened that they were going to miss Pearl Jam's two-day stint at Alpine Valley in September. He framed this with some humorous musings on the birth of his own first child, saying that the moment before she "entered the Earth's atmosphere" was the "highest I've ever been in my life," adding, "And that's saying a lot considering I've hung out on tour with Keith Richards."
Other highlights (at least for this concertgoer) included an inspiringly beautiful cover of Cat Stevens' tune "Trouble," and Pearl Jam classics "Betterman," "Wishlist," "Lukin" and "Porch."
The tunes that got the biggest audience response by far were Pearl Jam fan favorite "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," which got the whole room on its feet, singing the chorus "Hearts and thoughts they fade away" in unison; and Hansard's Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly" which he returned to the stage to sing with Vedder in what may have been the performance of the night.
Vedder also showed his sense of humor by briefly teasing the sign-language assistant to the left of the stage, asking her to "follow along" as he sang "The singer is a fucking asshole, the singer is a prick." He then offered her a glass from the bottle of wine he was drinking on stage and asked if she had a "designated signer."
As if all of this weren't enough, Vedder's final encore of "Hard Sun" (a tune from the soundtrack to the film Into the Wild) performed with Hansard was just incredible. Yet still wanting to give just a little more, he finally ended with "Dream a Little Dream" before humbly accepting yet another standing ovation and walking quietly offstage.
Overall, the thing that amazed me most about this show was how full and rich a sound this one man and his guitar made without the advantage of a backing band. You really never noticed there was no band onstage because Vedder's musicianship was all that was needed to carry the room. In moments he was quiet and reflective and in moments he literally shredded his acoustic guitar in classic grunge fashion, tearing the roof off like Pearl Jam did in those early days 20 years ago.
In the beginning of the evening, Vedder noted to the crowd, "you guys are really lucky tonight." He was right; and I feel so honored to have been among the lucky ones.
Eddie Veddder setlist courtesy of Two Feed Thick:
Sleeping By Myself
Havana Moon (Chuck Berry)
Trouble (Cat Stevens)
I Am Mine (for Joplin tornado victim Christopher Lee-Sye and his wife Nicole)
Thumbing My Way
Long Nights (with Glen Hansard )
Improv on Mandolin for ASL interpreter
Rise (for ASL interpreter and those benefitting from the interpretation)
Just Breathe (for expectant parents Jennifer and Robbie)
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Sleepless Nights (with Glen Hansard, song by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant)
Society (with Glen Hansard, song by Jerry Hannan)
Falling Slowly (Glen singing and playing acoustic, Eddie duet vocal)
Last Kiss (Wayne Cochran)
So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star (Hillman, McGuinn)
Hard Sun (with Glen Hansard, song by Gordon Peterson)
Dream a Little Dream (Gus Kahn, Wilbur Schwandt, Fabian Andree)