‘Pearl Jam Acoustic and Then Some’, Benefit for Louis Warschaw Prostate Cancer Center, Santa Barbara Bowl, Santa Barbara, CA- 10/28
Man, was it hot (figuratively) in California on Tuesday for the show billed as
"Pearl Jam Acoustic and Then Some." Nobody knew exactly what to expect.
Outside the venue, a gorgeous wooded 4,500-seat stone amphitheater with
a view of the ocean, there was some serious buzz buzzing, aided by the
natural acoustics which provided the entire neighborhood with a nice
aural glimpse of the soundcheck, which included some special songs and
some special guests. After eating at a friendly upscale pseudo-diner
called the City Kitchen, I walked up to the venue and started hearing
rumors. "Chris Cornell is here!" said one excited fan. "The Foo Fighters
are here!" cried another. "California’s been consumed by fire!" shouted
a third. I don’t know what soundcheck that dude was listening to, but he
must have smoked the brown acid at Normandy! Ignoring the propaganda
machine excitedly throwing sparks into the chaparral of my imagination,
I lollygagged my way to Section F and waited for the show to begin.
The six-man (with Hawaiian keyboardist Boom Gaspar
coming off the bench) lineup of Pearl Jam took the stage to
appropriate adulation and applause. Playing mostly acoustic, with
aluminum folding chairs aplenty (isn’t there enough money in the kitty to get these rock stars some suitable thrones?),
the band tore gently through a string of beautiful songs, beginning with
the Ramones’ "I Believe In Miracles". The eleven song set mostly
featured tunes that were originally acoustic-based, except for "Crazy
Mary", an old favorite written by Victoria Williams, from the
grunge-generation "Sweet Relief" benefit disc. On that one, lead
guitarist Mike McCready ripped a brilliant electric solo, prompting one
nearby concertgoer to yell "Play another solo!" after he wound it down.
Mike did not comply, and the band launched into their most boring and
useless song, the early-rock-and-roll-death-pop hit "Last Kiss", which
was appropriately boring and useless. After that abomination, Eddie
(that’s Eddie Vedder) announced that some special guests would be coming
out, declaring "We brought good friends and great friends tonight….no
shit friends. Ladies and gentlemen, Lyle Workman!" Most of the audience
didn’t seem to recognize Mr. Workman, but I was gleeful and incredulous,
as the very same Lyle Workman played ridiculous lead guitar on this
reviewer’s Greatest Album of the Rock Era, Frank Black’s 1994 opus
Teenager of the Year. This was a real thrill! Shel Silverstein’s "25
Minutes to Go", made famous by Johnny Cash, followed (with some nice
lead work by Workman), and was a memorable and uplifting tribute to the
glory of public execution by hanging. "That’s the end of the first set,"
growled Mr. Vedder, and things were about to change.
Electricity, pioneered by Philadelphian Ben Franklin and profiteered by
Texans the world over, began to flow and the strains of the brilliant
"Love Boat Captain" emerged. Pearl Jam’s most recent album Riot Act
is, to this PJ fan, their best yet, and "LBC" (as busy people call it)
is one of its anchors (pun intended, thank YOU very much, no, thank
YOU!). It roared and purred, and the power that is Pearl Jam was
unleashed on a very appreciative audience. Serious crowdpleaser "Black"
followed, with Eddie’s beautiful voice wafting amongst the pines, and
McCready ripping another brutally odd solo. Universally ignored among
jamband guitar fans (no, PJ is not technically a "jam" band, but they
can jam like F-ing Paul Weller when they feel like it), Mr. Mike has
entered into a realm where he’s playing not with the song, not over the
song, but BEYOND the song. Having acquired over the last decade a
serious degree of technical virtuosity, the guitarist often chooses
blinding speed and strange atonality, slipping back and forth between
rockstar beauty and metal brutality, in this case, within a pop ballad.
In this reviewer’s ears, it’s ear wax candy bottles filled with wicked
axe mojo. Check him out. Eddie then introduced former PJ drummer Jack
Irons, who pounded his way through the great mid-90s tunes "In My Tree"
(which has a new arrangement) and "Hail Hail", one of the band’s most
effective rockers. It was great, we always love Jack. He helped the band
switch from its early angry immature rock bombast into its mid-career
contemplative rock bombast mode, and for that I, for one, will always be
grateful. With Matt Cameron firmly back behind the kit, the band
finished their electric mini-set with one of the most blistering tunes
from "Riot Act", the cognitive-behavioral therapy session "Save You". Awesome. What next?
How about Mr. Jack Johnson? I don’t really know jack about Johnson,
but he played a nice acoustic guitar along with Eddie’s ukulele on "Soon
Forget" and then with the full band on "Better Man". That song was
excellent and segued brilliantly into the Ramones’ "I Wanna Be Your
Boyfriend", the second Ramones song of the night. But what next? Is that
all you got, Pearl Jam? Lyle Workman and Jack Johnson? Don’t you have
any bigger friends?
"We now have a guest, I still can’t believe he’s here, ladies and
gentlemen, Chris Cornell!" The crowd went wild, responsibly. Mr.
Soundgarden played two songs solo, "Can’t Change Me" from his solo album
and "Like a Stone", the current Audioslave Clear Channel ad. The
response was overwhelming, and everybody knew what was up next. "We
haven’t played this together in eleven years," Eddie said as the band
returned, and the Temple of the Dog reunion was on. "Hunger Strike",
possibly more popular than any single Pearl Jam or Soundgarden song,
followed, sending the crowd into fits of Roman ecstasy and Peruvian
Bacchanalia. Pearl Jam occasionally has played this song in their
regular shows, but never with Cornell, so the real treat was in hearing
the two voices, so different (Cornell’s shriek, Eddie’s smooth
baritone), blending. Why, then, did the crowd feel the need to sing
along louder than the singers? I wasn’t the biggest Temple of the Dog
fan (I was a fourteen-year-old They Might Be Giants geek at the time,
and still am), but it was clearly a huge moment, so it would have been
pretty cool to hear the harmonies without the dude next to me adding a
third line like he was effing Graham Nash. The band, with Cornell,
followed with "Reach Down", a really groovy old Temple of the Dog song
with which I was unfamiliar. It was heavy and fun and the vibe in the
Bowl was perfect.
What next? How about Mr. "Under the Bridge" himself, John Frusciante of
the Red Hot Chili Peppers? No? Wrong, because that’s what happened.
Eddie announced that they’d be playing some Ramones songs. Personally, I was thrilled, but this isn’t about me, it’s by me, and peripherally about me. The band began with "Daytime Dilemma" which was totally enjoyable, although Frusciante looked very uncomfortable onstage and didn’t
quite know what to do with his guitar. "I Believe In Miracles" came
next, a powerful electric version to bookend the acoustic version that started the night. Definitely a highlight, Frusciante again wasn’t
up to the task, leaving Mr. Mike "Steady Eddie" McCready to get
the job done. Encore break. The fog had crept ever closer to the venue from the shoreline, and by this time in the concert it was
swirling around, reminding everyone of the great fog swirlings of the past.
What a rich history fog has on the California coast!
"We’re here for two reasons. We really believe in the work that the
Cancer Center is doing, and people very close to us have been affected.
Second, we’ve never played Santa Barbara," said Eddie, or something like
that, sometime during the evening. Look, I’m not a secretary. Anyway,
following Frusciante’s departure, everybody else (Eddie, Mike, Matt,
Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Boom, Chris Cornell, Lyle Workman, Jack
Irons, Jack Johnson) came back out for the final encore, the Byrds’
classic snide putdown "So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star". It was a
brilliant close to a lovely evening, building up power right until the
end. And that was it.