I first saw Eddie Vedder live in 1994, when he and the band he fronts, Pearl Jam, played the Mid-South Coliseum. The grunge band's second album, Vs., had recently been released, and the concert was everything my 18-year-old heart could've hoped for. Pearl Jam played every song from their debut album, Ten, and all save one ("Rats") from Vs.
And yet what I remember most of that show isn't the music but the Vedder's politics. At one point at the '94 show, he asked the audience, "Is it okay to be gay in Memphis?" The crowd mostly booed back, "no." To my present shame, I was one of them. (At least I would eventually outgrow my childlike homophobia.) Vedder had a comeback to the Memphis masses: "Then you're all a bunch of fucking assholes."
The musician has been famous for his politics and socially liberal lyrics in his career, culminating, in my mind, with songs from Pearl Jam's Riot Act, released in 2002, an anti-Bush statement — pre-Iraq War, no less — at a time when it was very unpopular to be so in mainstream music. Vedder was ahead of the curve.
Last night, Vedder was back in Memphis to play a sold-out solo show at The Orpheum. His social causes were on display a little, but it wasn't in the political realm, per se, this time. Instead, it was a controversy close to home: the West Memphis 3.
Late in the show, Vedder said that the WM3 was once of the reasons he played Memphis on his short, eight-city tour. Unlike his confrontational approach to a controversial subject 15 years ago, Vedder was imploring and appealed to the reason of those in the crowd who might disagree with him. "All due respect to each of you as individuals," he started before presenting a case for getting better informed for that those who don't know or don't believe in the WM3's innocence. "You owe it to your country. It could happen to any of us. Three men are in prison, and they shouldn't be." He topped it off, not with a curse at his opponents but a kind of graceful plea: "Scout's honor."
Then Vedder launched into "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," a Pearl Jam hit from Vs., which seems a little perpendicular to the WM3 cause until you get to the line, "Small town predicts my fate. Perhaps that's what no one wants to see."
Vedder said he would be seeing imprisoned WM3 Damien Echols in a few days and expressed hope that it would be the last time he'd ever see him behind bars. Echolls co-wrote Pearl Jam's "Army Reserve" with Vedder on the band's last, self-titled album.
The show last night was designed to be intimate, relaxing, and measured, I suspect. When he first took the stage to a standing applause, Vedder asked everyone to "make yourselves at home, please." Vedder sat on a stool, and the crowd back into their seats.
But the audience wasn't having complacency. Cheers and hollers from individuals typically took on the form of "I love you, man!" It seemed like the gallery moments after Tiger Woods hits a drive. Vedder tried to defuse the distraction, saying he couldn't really understand what they were saying, that it just came back to him as them yelling, "I touch myself in the morning." His attempt at levity failed to short the boisterous love, and eventually he just kind of went with it. It morphed into an intimate, funny, no-pressure, energizing performance. (When Vedder had technical problems on a harmonica or guitar, the crowd just thought it was funny.)
Vedder commented on The Orpheum, saying, "[Growing up,] never in my wildest imagination did I think I'd be playing a place as nice as this." It kind of rose above typical concert/locale/audience ingratiation, because streams of people, clearly Orpheum rookies, walked down into the basin of the room to take a look at the gorgeous ceiling and gold-leaf appointment. It made me proud of Memphis, a little. Just sitting to my immediate front and back were a pair who had driven in from Chicago and a group who had flown in from Boston. That's pretty cool, and it speaks to the following Vedder/Pearl Jam has. What's the opposite of diaspora? That's what Pearl Jam concerts typically are.
Vedder mixed songs from the Pearl Jam catalog, from his solo recordings (such as his soundtrack work on the film Into the Wild), and covers. He did so with a battery of stringed instruments, including several guitars, a mandolin, and a ukulele.
The three highlights were a cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love," which he'd only ever played once before, at the request of Johnny Ramone. And Vedder closed out his first set with "Porch," from Pearl Jam's Ten. It was one, big, chill-inducing song. And his live version of the gorgeous vocal "Arc," from Riot Act, was staggering. Through playbacks of his voice, recorded live, and then with new parts sung over it, "Arc" had the effect of setting a great machine in motion. It was impressive stuff.
Note: I'll amend this post with the set list later today, once I decipher my notes.