Josh Modell: So Sean, as I think I told you once or twice—maybe by saying “really?!”—I was surprised when you asked if you could be my date to one of the Pearl Jam shows at Wrigley Field. I feel like I know your current musical tastes fairly well, and that it consists of ambient instrumentals, not mega-’90s alt-rock gods who’ve gone on to become the nation’s youngest stadium-filling classic-rock band.
I’ve told of my relationship to Pearl Jam’s music in these pages before, which boils down to: Didn’t like ’em, liked ’em, was a little indifferent (2000-2006), and now I guess I mostly love them, at least certain records and definitely seeing them live. So give me some background. You’ve surely had the chance to see Pearl Jam over the years. If you liked them as a teen, why didn’t you ever see them then? And what made you want to go this time around? Was it a crime of opportunity? And while we’re at it, what were your initial thoughts, now that your Taco Bell has settled?
Sean O’Neal: You mean besides the chance to spend a lovely evening hanging out with you, then write about it? I suppose there was some chance and convenience in there (Wrigley’s right by my house, after all), but there was also some genuine affection as well. I might listen to a lot of synthesizer droning these days, but my music tastes run fairly wider and deeper than maybe you give me credit for. And I’ve lived out a lot of different musical obsessions in my 38 years and tried on a lot of their different respective guises, but the earliest was all tied up in Pearl Jam and their Alternative Nation contemporaries.
The releases of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten just happened to coincide with my turning 13, and suddenly feeling the onslaught of beautiful loserdom that those albums spoke to so loudly. And while I listened to a lot of different music over the next three years—a big chunk of it based on those bands’ recommendations—those two groups remained the alpha and omega. I slept beneath subway-sized posters for the “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Even Flow” singles; my first-ever garage band covered “Love Buzz” and “Jeremy.” I may have lived in suburban Dallas, but for most of high school, my heart and mind were in Seattle. I wore flannel and combat boots in the Texas summer, like an idiot.
Unfortunately, I’d also skipped second grade, so I didn’t even turn 16 until my senior year—and my mother, forever worried about the wild, latter-day Altamont that was the ’90s alternative-rock arena concert, wouldn’t let me go to shows until I turned 18. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, followed by a whole lot of teen seething about how now I would never see my favorite band, she was finally guilted into letting me go to concerts in the summer of ’94. So I got to see my first real show (Stone Temple Pilots and The Meat Puppets), but it was too late for me and Pearl Jam. They wouldn’t return to Dallas until 1998, and by then I was in Austin for college—and at least two or three musical phases past them.
But while I stopped even being curious about Pearl Jam after Yield, those first three albums still mean so, so much to me, if only as a bedrock of my adolescence. They never left my CD wallet during that crucial era of 13 through 16, where—as an awkward kid who didn’t particularly feel part of anything else—I found most of my identity in the music I liked. There will always be part of me with a deep fondness for Pearl Jam, even if these days I don’t spend a whole lot of time listening to them. Now that you mentioned/blabbed about it to everyone, it’s kind of like eating Taco Bell: I don’t do it very often, but there’s a latent part of me that will always respond to it viscerally. (Also, it reminds me of high school, and it’s better after a few beers.) So when you said you were going, it sounded like fun, and like a chance to revisit those songs and the old feelings they stir—and to experience the full weight of them returning to me now, as a married father of two, like a warm chalupa in the gut.
And I’m glad I did! I knew Pearl Jam’s reputation as a live band, but I was still majorly impressed that they put on a three-hour set filled with songs they’ve been playing since I was a pubescent nightmare, but delivered them like they’d just finished banging them out yesterday. And I was surprised and occasionally moved by the general atmosphere, which—as much as I fucking hate this cliché—bordered on church tent revival, what with Eddie Vedder dedicating “Release” to that fan who’d waited four days to get in and “was going through some stuff;” that mid-show appearance from ALS-suffering former NFL player Steve Gleason; that couple who got engaged on stage while Vedder serenaded them from a stool; plus all of his myriad, rambling sermons about the healing power of music. It got kinda hokey at times (and you can say that about the music, too), but it’s hard to stay cynical while you’re surrounded by that many people who are so excited to be there. You certainly don’t get that feeling from a lot of dark ambient shows.
How was it for you? I know your Pearl Jam count is in the double digits, so how did this one measure up to everything you’ve seen before? What is it about them that keeps you coming back over and over, even if it means putting up with having to cram into Wrigley Field with thousands of other people? And which song did you like my singing along with the best?
Josh Modell: Well, I’m glad to hear all of that, from the backstory to the general enjoyment of the show. I know you and I have talked a ton about music over the years we’ve known each other, but I think I somehow missed that Pearl Jam was such a big part of your youth. Nirvana I could have figured, but I just assumed that, like me, you found Pearl Jam to be the pretenders. And I’m particularly happy that you were enjoying those old songs, because honestly when you were singing along with them, part of me thought you were just mocking them.
What brings me back, as hokey as it sounds, is two things: One is that church-tent revival stuff, both from the stage and from the audience. Pearl Jam audiences are generally huge—there were something like 46,000 people in attendance Saturday night—but by and large they seem to be composed of superfans who are genuinely excited to share in the power of music, as Eddie Vedder talked about. (A little too much, to be honest, but whaddya gonna do?) And even though we were a million miles from the stage—and we had pretty good seats—it still felt like an event. When I see Pearl Jam, even if the set list isn’t exactly to my liking, it’s generally awesome, in the truest sense of the word. I feel like I’m seeing greatness and connection, even if I don’t feel like one of those super diehards.
Speaking of the set list being to my liking, I’d give last night’s a seven out of 10, I think. There were a few too many covers for my liking, and those lacked the energy of Pearl Jam’s own material—particularly The Ramones’ “I Believe In Miracles,” which was delivered at a pretty chill tempo, and The Beatles’ “Rain,” which seemed to be played only to acknowledge the last time Pearl Jam played Wrigley Field—when a storm delayed the performance for two hours. The highlights for me were the Vitalogy album track “Last Exit” and the Merkin Ball deep-ish cut “I Got ID,” a.k.a. “I Got Shit,” which apparently they don’t play much. And then there was the triple shot of “Corduroy,” “Porch,” and “Go,” which was for me probably the best 15 minutes of the night—incredible songs delivered with unabashed passion. It’s nice to see that Pearl Jam has settled into their role of alt-rock elder statesman and let go of the grouchiness of youth. It has to go at some point, and it’s nice that it’s been channeled into making thousands of people feel united. I can’t imagine Nirvana doing anything similar 25 years after Nevermind. And even though I’m an old grouch now, I’m genuinely excited to go back and see three more hours of Pearl Jam on Monday night. Would you do it again if Alex bailed? Were there songs you wanted to hear that you didn’t? Was the spectacle enough to overcome the many songs I assume you didn’t recognize, from the post-Yield years?
Sean O’Neal: I think the only one I didn’t hear that I would have loved to was “Animal”—a song that, again, one of my several high-school garage bands used to play, with abysmally off-kilter drumming from yours truly. But other than that, despite there being longish blocks where I felt okay heading to the bathroom, the set was remarkably heavy on stuff that even lapsed fans like myself would appreciate, from the probably obligatory “Alive” and “Even Flow” to that three-song stretch you mention. And while I personally really enjoyed the rendition of “Comfortably Numb,” because my Pearl Jam years happened to dovetail nicely with that time when every 15-year-old boy gets really into Pink Floyd, I agree it was a little heavy on bar band covers—including Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” which I don’t think anyone needs to cover again, possibly including Cheap Trick. Still, that all felt like part of the band’s fervent bid to, as you say, create a feeling of community, like when someone at the bar loads up the jukebox with songs everybody can belt out by heart.
And yeah, sometimes there’s a little bit of light mocking involved when you sing along to those old songs, but it wasn’t directed at Pearl Jam. It was more about laughing at my teenage self, and just how deeply I felt the lyrics to, say, “Black,” aimed at whatever forgotten high school crush I knew would be a star in somebody else’s sky, but whyyyyy, whyyy, whyyyyyy can’t it beeeeeeeeee miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine? If there’s a reason why I sort of fell out with Pearl Jam eventually, it’s that this kind of melodramatic earnestness spoke to me less as I got older, and it all just started to seem a bit corny. Maybe it was the deluge of watered-down imitators who followed; maybe it was just me gravitating toward artists who had a more aloof idea of cool. I never thought Pearl Jam were “pretenders,” per se; I think I was a little too young to be aware that I was supposed to care about credibility yet. But after a while, I did get a little tired of the after-school special self-seriousness behind songs like “Daughter.” Still, that’s certainly not their problem, and as we witnessed, that sincerity clearly still resonates with the thousands of people who do find personal meaning in “Daughter.” And maybe I’m privileged to have lived the kind of life where I don’t.
Would I do it all over again? Well, not tonight. As you know, I’ve got two 14-month-olds at home, so I’m tired all the time, and getting away for a three-hour concert isn’t easy. But if Pearl Jam made Wrigley an annual event, I would gladly go with you again next summer. I’ve been to thousands of shows since my mother finally let me out of the house, but I could probably count on one hand the number of bands I’ve seen play with that much relentless passion for so long—and fewer still where it was so reciprocated by their audience. I definitely wouldn’t mind reliving that experience. What about you? What are you hoping for from the next show, especially so soon after just seeing one? Do you ever see yourself finally getting your fill of seeing Pearl Jam, or will you only stop when they do? Do you think Jeff Ament will ever get rid of the chin-beard? Do you know that nine out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns? Do you want to FaceTime me during “Even Flow” so I can sing over it for you again?
Josh Modell: I will happily see Pearl Jam every year or two for the rest of my life (or theirs), for all the reasons stated above. Their set lists vary wildly from night to night, so I expect to hear only three or four of the same songs we did on Saturday. (Likely “Alive,” “Jeremy,” and “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter…” if past shows are any yardstick.) Even the songs I don’t know or love tend to take on fresh life, both from the energy of the crowd and the joy of the band performing them. I feel compelled to go—it scratches an itch I don’t seem to find at many other concerts. They’ve got something special, something clearly hard-won and well earned, and it feels, weirdly, like a privilege to get to see it.