Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Pearl Jam - Milton Keynes Bowl 11/07/14

14 July 2014, 12:56 | Written by Oobah Butler

A luscious green embankment decorated by draped plaid shirts, sunglasses and makeshift mats is the setting to Pearl Jam’s thirtieth, and biggest, show on UK soil. And this, the culmination of the group’s lifespan in our country is even more surprising when you consider that the general consensus is they passed the peak of their powers this side of the Atlantic an age ago. Since the mid-nineties we’ve found it very difficult to place the five-piece Seattle group within our music scene, but from the first roars of over sixty thousand as they take to the Milton Keynes Bowl for the final show of their 2014 European tour, everything is clear.

Pearl Jam are a group who can announce an appearance on any continent and you can guarantee a slew of locals will attend, shortly before scratching that two letter title off their bucket list. This unrivaled presence on the road promotes them into a league of little company, and with that comes a crisis of direction: the group could quite amicably, like Springsteen, crystalise as they are now and become an artifact. On the other hand, they take a leaf from the book of Neil Young and maintain their fervour for playing live whilst still questioning themselves, artistically. As Mike McCready unsheathes a violin bow and the rings of a rickety piano sound over the midsummer sun, it suggests the latter.

The waves of set-opener “Pendulum” beats over the audience, shaping a soft aesthetic with an expectant air of intensity. Continuing in this vein, a “Wash” of colour from their seminal ’91 record Ten coupled with cult-hit “Nothingman” pleases the crowd, before “Black” draws them to their feet. It’s soon after that the ghosts of Roskilde, a tragedy which the band has “never been the same” since, rear their head. “Look after your neighbour” Vedder insists, before pleading with bigger members of the ferocious crowd to stop crowd surfing and to keep their “feet on the ground, head in the sky… and food on their plate”. He turns back again amongst the laughter to rectify his pleas, asking that only the girls surf, before threatening guys that if “you don’t comply, we’ll put you in a canvas bag, dump you in the woods and you’ll wake up at the MK Electric Daisy Carnival tripping your balls off”. After this preparation, they explode into their unyielding hit, “Brain of J”.

Attacks of fast-paced, relentless numbers follow back-to-back: “Save You”, “Hail Hail”, “Mind Your Manners”, the spine-chilling “Do The Evolution”, the raid doesn’t stop. Just an hour scrolling through videos of Eddie Vedder scaling gargantuan scaffolding or bashing holes in the middle of the stage on YouTube will teach anybody about what Pearl Jam bring to their live shows, and this has been a constant throughout their career. From watching Mike McCready sprinting in circuits around the stage throughout “Spin The Black Circle” to witnessing Vedder leaping from monitor to monitor and hurling, catching and smashing aa microphone stand; the group have an infectious type of energy that you seldom see on stage. This raw physicality isn’t construed a spectacle but rather an autonomous source of energy, driving the atmosphere of the evening musically and emotionally. It has to be seen as a defining idiosyncrasy.

For the beginning of their encore they create a unique moment with son of George Harrison, Dhani joining them for a version of Beatles song “Rain”. The difference between Pearl Jam and most other live bands is their penchant for ensuring that no night of a tour is like any other. Yes, they change their set list every time and they have a different rapport with every audience, but most bands do that. They’re truly individual in their ability to develop distinct narratives and overarching themes that run throughout the night.

They’re walking the tightrope between two starkly different philosophies of British and American cultures throughout the evening. Earlier, Vedder describes his fondness for Britain with a story from when they were mixing the recordings for their first album, Ten in the Surrey countryside. After declaring that they’d already exceeded their expectations at that point by merely visiting our island, he speaks of the lady who made the tea at the studio. Hers was the first truly impartial opinion about the material he had heard, and she described it to him as “brilliant” - a significant moment he’d “never forget”. Fifteen minutes later she was passed a slice of bread by bandmate Stone Gossard, which she also described as “brilliant” – Vedder downs his head in a Charlie Brown-esque moment, and everybody is laughing. Later on underneath the full moon, blood red light bounces off of sixty thousand heads; VS’ “Daughter” plays loud. Eddie projects over a sustained instrumental section what humans want: “to eat, sleep, eat, draw some art, sleep, make some music, procreate, eat, sleep, fuck some more”. He then begins stating his disbelief at how, not far from here; “people are looking for a reason to go across borders and take over land that doesn’t belong to them. They should get the fuck out, and mind their own fucking business. We don’t want to give them our money. We don’t want to give them our taxes to drop bombs on children.” He passionately begins screaming lines from Edwin Starr’s pacifist hit “War” which, along with the sentiments, is echoed by the crowd. However, being this forthright and boorish about ones convictions is shocking on this side of the Atlantic. These two contrasting and arresting moments, however, provide some of the reasoning as to why the group are still challenging and what prevents them from becoming predictable.

Reciprocated choruses of “Better Man”, searching for the answer in their duet with Pete Townsend’s brother Simon, and the propulsive power of “Jeremy”; the band are plucking B-sides, hits and cult-favourites to similarly jubilant reactions, and I can’t help but be surprised by the mutual respect for all the material from both band and crowd, regardless of its background. It’s down to Vedder’s uniquely compelling presence; he’s equally capable of encapsulating the crowd for a self-deprecating quip as a stream of self-reflection. There’s not an ounce of arrogance or self-awareness here, but rather an absolute, unadulterated honesty and vulnerability - the response to this is trust.

As streams of people dance from down the hill toward the stage, the show reaches its climax. It’s the Pearl Jam song which rings in everybody’s subconscious, “Alive”. Such is the widespread catharsis and expression shared that it’s like a mutually therapeutic session for the mass majority. Pearl Jam spend three and a half hours challenging themselves to make a meaningful connection with the whole of their audience and, as sixty thousand sing the mantra “we’re all still alive”, it signals the completion of their goal.

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