THE POWER OF ONE

I’ve been very privileged to have experienced hundreds of live musical events in my life. It really began in 1976 when I was 15 and featured two very different shows: Neil Diamond in his early rocker-style hey day at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in NY, my Mom was a huge fan and made it to the show even as she was undergoing chemo for ovarian cancer, she miraculously survived it. And that same year, I made it to an incredible 3-hour Chicago show at New Haven (Conn.) Coliseum, my first true rock concert persay. I remember smelling the sweet scent of something in the air, and not realizing what it was at the time. I’d find out soon enough. 

My concertgoing experiences have continued unabated over 30 years, and have included every conceivable kind of possible musical performance – everything from standout iconic rock music concerts like the legendary Led Zeppelin in 1977 at Madison Square Garden, Pink Floyd’s epic show of The Wall, a few dozen Bruce Springsteen shows, and the original Lynyrd Skynyrd three months before the crash that would end their run as one of America’s most original Southern rock bands – to the beauty and poignancy of violin maestro Itzhak Perlman and other jazz and classical icons – to original performances of broadway shows like Cats, Phantom of the Opera and A Chorus Line, all on the Great White Way in NYC. Over the years, live musical and theater performance has been one of the great joys in my life, every show still gives me some butterflies of some kind, and the great ones are etched forever in my mind.

One of those great moments certainly occurred last night at the Warner Theater in DC, a hallowed and magical performance hall that went from porno theater to exceptional venue in a matter of decades, and has seen some of the great performances that have ever come to the nation’s capital, people like Frank Sinatra, George Carlin, Paul Simon, Chris Rock, Prince, plus legendary broadway shows, and many many more top shelf entertainment experiences. Last night, another Warner legend was born, and another exceptional performance was added to my own personal log of unforgettable musical evenings.

Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder came to town this weekend, and I was one of the 3000 or so very lucky people to be at the Warner for one of his two exceptional back to back DC shows. Vedder not only didn’t dissapoint, he certainly exceeded everyone’s very high expectations. His status as the leader of one of rock music’s most popular bands is only one part of Vedder’s vast talent, and as a result, we all came with alot of high hopes. Last night, on a spare set and sitting on a stool surrounded by only suitcases as sparse props, Vedder put on a truly brilliant and unique show, and illustrated why his gifts go way way beyond the highly successful but typically frenetic confines of his A-list Seattle-borne grunge rock band.

In a nearly 2 1/2 hour performance that included music from his own canon as well as an eclectic range of songwriters, Vedder had the sold-out Warner crowd in the palm of his hand, and gave back to the adoring throng with a mesmerizing and exulting masterpiece of a one-man performance. Dressed in his stereotypical plaid flannel shirt, jeans and boots, he was in tremendous form, not only vocally, but with his (to me) unexpected and staggering prowess as a guitarist. He played not only the electric and acoustic, but alternated on ukelele, mandolin and banjo with equal ability. His onstage banter was consistently endearing and engaging, including one great story about how he and a buddy spent the day yesterday riding 12 foot long surfboards up the Potomac, only to end up in a seemingly secure waterside naval facility. Vedder joked, “We see grandmothers having to take their shoes off and babies patted down at airports, but here in the nation’s capital, we surf right up to some navy base.” Vedder has matured not only into a world-class musician, but his command of the stage in this intimate setting was dead on, and made this fan reminiscent of one of Vedder’s heroes, and mine, Bruce Springsteen.

Sure, there were great Pearl Jam songs aplenty, and they were in many ways as strong as with his powerful band. He relied on some of the quieter PJ tunes that fit the mood, like “Around The Bend”, “I’m Open” and “I am Mine”, but the rocker “Porch” from the “Ten” record was every bit as impactful as with his mates, even down to an audience singalong. 

But some of the evening’s most profound moments came from Vedder’s incredible songs he wrote for the soundtrack of Sean Penn’s film, “Into The Wild.” Vedder has clearly been transformed by the experience of writing this soundtrack, and in the five or six songs he played from that work this night, his heart was clearly on his sleeve. If you haven’t seen this film, go rent it immediately, not only for Penn’s simply awesome direction and Emile Hirsch’s transcendant performance as Annandale’s Chris McCandless, but perhaps mostly for Vedder’s transfixing soundtrack, which is not only beautiful music but becomes a true narrative for the main character. An interview with Penn and Vedder on Charlie Rose from a year or so back is another way to get inside the creative masterpiece that is this film and should not be missed, it can be seen on You Tube. Vedder took the stunned crowd back to McCandless’ search for truth and himself in the wilds of Alaska with his renditions of these alternately empowering and heartbreaking songs, including “Society”, which he dueted with opening act Liam Finn in the first encore, and the anthemic “Hard Sun” which closed the show. “Guarantee” was also gorgeous and it’s subtle power has stayed with me to this moment.

Vedder also reached into the Dylan songbook, but then again, what great musicians don’t? He rolled a gorgeous version of “Forever Young”, and an utterly ecstatic “All Along The Watchtower”, with current tour filmographer/former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty bashing the skins alongside Vedder. The two tightly embraced during the song’s applause, and you could sense a real kinship between the two legends. Vedder also rolled Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” and “If You Want to Sing Out”, evoking the wonderful talents of this songwriting genius whose legacy took such an unnecessary hit when he converted to Islam in the 90’s.

Of course Vedder couldn’t resist taking a political posture so close to the White House, rolling the Beatles’ civil rights ballad “Blackbird” and mentioning how if you close your eyes, you can see the years of injustice against the black man that leads to the “smiling face of Barack Obama.” At one point, he played down his political leanings, all as a huge Obama banner was paraded behind him. He greeted the very few resulting boos heard in the crowd by saying, “Well if you showed up here, what the f–k did you expect?” “Here’s To The State” admonished the President, Vice-President and others, and the stirring “No More”, from Vedder’s own Body Of War project he did as a tribute to an Iraq war veteran he befriended, caused another fist-raising audience singalong. The vast majority of the Warner crowd cheered along with every one of Vedder’s politically charged tunes, and were clearly awash in their agreement with his positions. Near the show’s end, Vedder experimented with a mix of sound and voice which he called a “kind of prayer”, with his voice layered by recordings over live chanting. 

As we spilled into the streets after this once-in-a-lifetime show, my wife Mimi turned to me and said, “That was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.” She’s right. A very rare evening with one of rock’s great voices and minds. We laughed, we teared up, we heard a little politics, some great stories and tales, and most importantly, alot of truly memorable music. Even with those hundreds of memorable live experiences behind me, this was a bigtime keeper. And then some. Thanks, Eddie.

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3 Responses to “THE POWER OF ONE”

  1. Since Steve and I have been friends since the ripe old age of 10 growing up in CT, I was brought into the music scene by this young R&Roller at the time.

    It all staerted in High School and we witnessed some memorable shows together. Bands such as Bad Company, ZZ Top, Eagles, Outlaws, Doobies, and the “Epic” Round up in RFK in Philly which included Allman Bros, Hatchet, 38 Special, and I think ZZ. Beleive it or not ,I had tix to both Skynrd, and Zep, but had other sporting committements, and I decided to pass–they were both “flash in the pan” bands anyway.

    These experiences bring me to where I am today in music, a hard core classic R&R, in which the Stones (seen 3x) and Skynrd bring back me back to the day.

    Best to all from Boston,

    TN

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