Alive and Well

Pearl Jam at O2 World, Berlin

By Sascha Krieger

You know you are witnessing something special when, all of a sudden, a huge, modern, faceless arena, filled with 15,000 people or more, turns into an intimate setting, a gathering of friends and family, spending some time together, having fun, sharing good and not so good memories. In a way, Pearl Jam have been the last survivors of the so-called grunge movement which changed rock music unlike any other musical movement did since punk exploded in 1977. And an explosion it was again fourteen years later, when shortly after each other, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten set braincells and hormone levels all around the work into overdrive mode. The sheer energy, the pure anger, the undiluted pain emanating from these records immediately connected with a generation that struggled to find a voice, a generation – or rather more than one – who was looking for a perspective among a parent and grandparent generation who denied them the right to be angry, to feel disenfranchised, to suffer from uncertainty. In the dark, colorless world of Ten many found something they had only been vaguely able to express about their own lives. It gave them a voice, an identity and at the same time, its complex structures, its fusion of stadium rock, hard rock and punk into something completely new marked a new departure in rock and roll music. Where Nirvana were straightforward and direct, Pearl Jam dived deep into the dark recesses of their and many others‘ souls. Both bands were musical pioneers which is why, long after the „grunge“ movement died and the generation some called „X“ grew up, their music is still alive and well and as exciting as on the first day.

There are times during the long hot night in Berlin, when Pearl Jam seem almost surprised they are still here and that, twenty years on, all those old fans and friends and many new ones are there, too. There are many tributes and shoutouts during the evening: to longtime crew members and local support, to special fans who have long become friends, to the creators of Berlin’s Ramones Museum and to musical heroes: On the first night they cover Neil Young (whose backing band they once were) and the Ramones, on the second it’s Pink Floyd and The Who. And the support act for them is never just a support act: This time they are joined by legendary Californian punk band X, part of the first punk wave in 1977, long-time musical heroes and friends. Eddie Vedder sings a song with them and even takes souvenir photographs of them. This is not just a concert, this is a night among friends.

Pearl Jam are survivors who have never disbanded, have released nine studio albums so far, four of them reaching number one on the Billboard Charts, another four number two. By all standards, Pearl Jam have been a huge commercial success and these days they have found their peace with the fact. Gone are the days when, following the success of Jeremy they stopped making music videos and when, after Ten, they largely withdrew, refusing to be the stars they had become. They have learned to live with their status and embrace songs from all eras with the same love and relaxed attitude. When they open the second night with one of the lesser known songs from Ten, Oceans, they tackle it as if it was written yesterday, with an intensity and tenderness that creates the song anew in this very moment.

The band has gone through many phases, they have grown and they have changed, the intricate, complex sound structures have given way to straightforward rock songs, pure punk has led to haunting ballads, hard rock has alternated with garage rock, but one thing has never changed: Even though Pearl Jam have never been afraid to speak out about human rights and political issues, they have first and foremost always been about the music. And they have never discarded any of the musical changes they have gone through, they still love all of their children.

And so they have brought a stirring mix of hard rock and punk and garage rock and ballads, one that celebrates the original just like the traditional, that bows to Neil Young, to The Who and to the Ramones but always remains Pearl Jam. On this, their second Berlin night the lesser known Ten songs emerge, such as Oceans and a Porch that takes them as close to punk rock as they have ever been. Even Flow and Alive are mainstays in their concerts and neither has lost its power, not in their overall energy, Mike McCready’s and Stone Gossard’s guitar work nor, of course, in Eddie Vedder’s voice which is still a force of nature that can pierce right through you but has also learned to touch, as in the haunting Come Back or the painful fragility of Just Breathe.

As this is a party with friends, they are, of course, invited to join in. Some bands fear that singing along discredits their music. Pearl Jam do not mind, knowing their music is strong enough and that it belongs to those who listen as much as to those who play it. So the audience can shout and bawl and sing, to songs like In Hiding, Corduroy, Do the Evolution and many more. And in all of this, none of the songs becomes a pleasant memory, they are right here, happening right now, and they still mean something. If this is a party of friends, at the end of which Vedder hardly wants to go, throwing out setlists, shaking hands, talking to people in the audience, during which he repeatedly asks the crowd to step back in order for everyone to be safe, it is not just about feeling good and having a nice time. This is about the music, a music that creates a bond, that matters, that is still, as they are and as we are, alive.

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