London’s Hammersmith Apollo isn’t what you’d call intimate. And yet Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder makes the 3,600-seater venue feel like a living room, or a cosy campfire singalong. And it’s not just because he’s surrounded by a vintage radio, reel-to-reel tape player, battered suitcases (complete with The Who sticker), various old-timey speakers, assorted instruments, and, later, an actual campfire complete with starry sky backdrop.
Most of it’s down to Vedder himself. Seated on stage alone for much of the two and a half hour set, he’s frank, honest, spontaneous, and vulnerable in his words and musical performances. He makes mistakes. He apologises. It feels like hanging out with your old friend Eddie (rather than one of the biggest rock stars on the planet) on a random Tuesday night where anything can happen. (Spoiler: it does.)
There’s laughter. Like when he remembers rolling joints over the picture of the Apollo on the ‘Quadrophenia’ LP cover. Or when he plays a “jumping off a cliff” rendition of Amanda Palmer’s joyously uproarious ‘Ukulele Anthem’ (sample lyric “play your ukulele badly”) before gifting the uke in question to a young girl in the audience. Or when he disarms a heckler by pleading poor hearing in his right ear courtesy of Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.
There are tears (in the audience) and a cracked voice (from the stage) when he honours his fallen friend, Chris Cornell, with raw, deeply personal memories most people wouldn’t share with a room full of strangers. “He wasn’t just a friend but like an older brother I looked up to” the 52-year-old offers. “I will love him forever,” Vedder confesses before he and support act Glen Hansard share the load on the communally cathartic ‘Song of Good Hope’ and, accompanied by the Red Limo string quartet, an almost spiritual ‘Falling Slowly’. As the two men poignantly trade lines like “We’re going to make it”, choking up is the only option.
There’s unbridled joy as, moments later, Dhani Harrison joins the pair for a roof-lifting run through Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’, that has the audience up on their feet, and a celebratory rendition of the already jubilant ‘Hard Sun’.
There’s anger tempered by disbelief when Donald Trump comes up in the introduction to his no nonsense take on Little Steven’s defiant but hopeful protest anthem ‘I Am A Patriot’.
There’s a constant sense of anticipation as these renditions of other artists’ songs keep coming. Thoughtful re-imaginations rather than slavish cover versions, they range from a loving tribute to David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ to a spare but haunting keyboard-based makeover of George Harrison’s mini-symphony ‘Isn’t It A Pity’.
There’s the thrill of hearing Vedder’s rarely performed solo work, as evidenced by the cheers that great his announcement of “Let’s go into the wild” before he performs several choice cuts from his ‘Into The Wild’ soundtrack album, including the ragged anthem of discontent ‘Far Behind’, a yearning ‘Setting Forth’, and delicate ‘Guaranteed’.
There’s a similar rush to hearing how he strips down Pearl Jam songs to their bare bones while retaining their visceral power (in the case of tracks like the aggressive ‘Porch’), scope and ambition (the epic ‘Immortality’), hypnotic grace (the swaggering ‘Can’t Keep’), soaring positivity (the rousing ‘I Am Mine’ and ‘Elderly Woman Behind The Counter’), and simple beauty (‘Better Man’, complete with new, improved vocal melody).
But most of all, there’s a sense of community, of having shared all these experiences with one man and his assorted guitars on a truly unique night. In live music, as with everything in life, it’s the intimacy of human interaction that truly means the most.
- Originally published in RockShot Mag.