On Wednesday, Sept. 14, rock band Pearl Jam played to a sold-out crowd of 25,000 at Freedom Mortgage Pavilion in Camden, New Jersey. It was the biggest show of their North American tour and the band pulled out a plethora of rarities just for the occasion.
This was my second time seeing Pearl Jam, after first seeing them last September at the Sea.Hear.Now festival in Asbury Park. This most recent show was their first one back since the pandemic which was very special, but I was most eager to experience a full-blown Pearl Jam concert rather than a festival set.
Pearl Jam is a notoriously active band that tours relentlessly and plays lengthy shows. The most exciting part of a Pearl Jam show is that you never know what they’ll play next; the setlists include deep cuts and are almost completely different from the previous shows, except for a few biggest hits they pull out every night. Their diehard fans follow them on tour and catch as many shows as they can, on a mission to witness every song in the band’s catalog.
It did not take long before I really felt the experience of being a part of a sold-out crowd. I sat in traffic for 45 minutes while venue staff rerouted cars to parking lots further from the venue, as others had immediately filled up.
By the time I got onto the lawn of the pavilion, the front was a sea of rented lawn chairs, so I had no choice but to sit further back than I had anticipated. I squinted at the stage, regretting not wearing my glasses. Yet, the weather was perfect. I was eating a soft pretzel. I had a gorgeous view of the Philly skyline and I was about to see Pearl Jam. I could not complain.
Recently, Pearl Jam has been opening with some slower, acoustic songs. I feel that sometimes it works and other times it falls flat. I foolishly hoped that they would start with a banger, but I immediately changed my mind when the wistful chords of “Wash” began. The soft segment continued with “Oceans” and “Daughter,” then closed with “Hard to Imagine,” a song which has only been played 45 times since it was first played in 1992.
After that strong opening, singer Eddie Vedder informed the crowd that they had finished the part of the show where they kept their composure. The band promptly kicked into “Animal,” the second track on their 1993 album “Vs.” and then jumped ahead 20 years to “Mind Your Manners” off the 2013 album “Lightning Bolt.”
Pearl Jam was in a reminiscent mood as Vedder brought up multiple times that the first time they had played in Philadelphia was at J.C. Dobbs, a small club on South Street, on July 12, 1991. This is how he introduced “Deep,” a song from their first album “Ten” which they also played at that first show.
There were certainly plenty of tracks from “Ten” played that night, of course including the beloved “Evenflow,” which Pearl Jam typically drags out into a fast-paced jam. Lead guitarist Mike McCready was incredibly sharp, playing a blistering solo behind his back during “Evenflow” and showing off throughout the night. He even played the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo “Eruption,” which was an absolute treat.
After “Evenflow,” Vedder was left alone onstage to play “Untitled.” Then, before I could even process what was happening, he slipped into the intro riff to “MFC,” my favorite Pearl Jam song ever. I was completely shocked that they played this song, but then again it seemed like anything was going to happen that night. “MFC” is a brief track tucked away in the 1998 album “Yield,” and while not extremely rare it is quite uncommon. It was a surreal moment that I am grateful for and my favorite part of the show.
My mind was spinning as the concert continued with the anthem “Not For You,” “Why Go,” and then rounded out the main set with “Porch.” In Pearl Jam’s early years, Vedder infamously would climb to the highest point of the venue during that song, despite his bandmates’ and venue security’s warnings. While that no longer occurs, they still keep the energy level at top notch and it’s a classic closer.
As the jam-packed crowd anticipated the encore, there was a palpable collective sense that we had all witnessed an incredible set and that none of us could anticipate what would come next.
“Just so you know, we already paid the curfew fine,” Vedder said to the crowd.
There was an uproar of cheers as we all knew we were in for something special.
The encore ended up lasting an additional seven songs made up of almost entirely old deep cuts. After fan-favorite “State of Love and Trust”, the crowd was bestowed with the evasive “Breath,” making it two back-to-back tracks from the “Singles” soundtrack.
The biggest surprise of the night came as the concert ground into hour two. Pearl Jam had one last trick up their sleeve, and it came courtesy of a fan request from the front row. Vedder held up a fan’s sign that said it was their 108th show, and that they wanted to hear “Leash.”
Based on the written setlist, Pearl Jam already planned on playing it, but they granted the fan’s wish. This song has quite the history; it is often requested but often denied, and it once disappeared from setlists for a stretch of 12 years. In fact, the song had been scratched from the Sept. 8 Toronto concert. I felt like the luckiest person in the world at that moment.
Pearl Jam put the night to rest with a bang and played the cathartic “Alive,” then finished with a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Pearl Jam often closes its shows with covers, and that one is my favorite. From start to finish it felt like this setlist was designed with me in mind.
In its essence, that is the magic of Pearl Jam and why they are still one of the biggest rock bands in America thirty years into their career. A Pearl Jam concert is a one-of-a-kind experience, while also being built upon a rich history of the many, many shows before it. Plus, the quality of their live sound has not aged, and it may have even improved.
The enthusiasm and loyalty Pearl Jam fans have is only possible because the band puts in just as much passion for what they do. This concert has solidified my love for this band and I am already yearning for the next opportunity to attend a show and check some more songs off my list.
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