Long Road – A Guided Tour of Pearl Jam’s Dublin Gig
The backstory is this: two nights ago, while loafing near a PC in a fog of sleep-deprived insouciance, I embarrassingly paid ten American dollars for the official “booted leg” of Pearl Jam’s recent Dublin show. As I detailed previously, I attended the show filled with a mixture of excitement and thinly-veiled disgust (joined mid-“Comatose” in the melting pot of my mood centre by “apathy, bordering on violent boredom”, but certainly came away from the gig with a favourable impression of the unflinchingly earnest old sods.
So the question became this question: how would the recorded document hold up to the surprisingly inoffensive memory?
Um. Not well.
So here for your bloodshot, probing eyes is a painstakingly detailed account of my reactions to this “booted leg”.
Hey, this sounds pretty good. Ed’s voice seems to be holding steady – not quite as boomingly impressive as it was in the 90s, nor as richly sonorous as it was in the early 00s, but not as embarrassingly scratchy as it has been in recent years. Of course, they’re opening with “Long Road”, which is a difficult song to make a mess of, so this is something of a gimme. Hard to tell much about the rest of the band as of yet, apart from the fact that they all seem to be there. Which I presume is a bonus.
Erk. Maybe not.
Okay, no. Something’s gone very wrong. The guitars sound like they’re being played through a €20 toy amplifier with a dodgy cable. The mix is all wrong. I can’t even begin to describe how awful the mix is. Mike’s guitar in the last half of “Once” sounds like someone scratching at a broken radio. Not to mention the fact that either the lead guitar in the intro was either pushed way too far down in the recording, or they actually forgot to play to the riff. All of this adds up to a worried correspondent. “Cor! Despondent!” more like.
Ah nuts. The Fixer. Again, Mike’s guitar sounds utterly anaemic. As if a fuller sounding guitar would help this song much – its sole redeeming factor is a fun singalong chorus (which, incidentally, was quite efficiently ruined on the night by the presence of other Pearl Jam fans: these people take disposable rubbish pop songs seriously when they eminate from Vedder’s vocal orifice, the loons) and even the chorus suffers from Mike’s inexplicable insistence on providing backing vocals these days. Oh well.
“Why Go” is starting to expose those cracks in Vedder’s voice. Oh Eddie, you idiot smoker. It doesn’t help that they play a lot of songs at approximately fourteen times the speed they were originally recorded at. Haste makes waste, chaps. Speed makes ears bleed. Tempos increased, vocal cords creased. Etc.
Corduroy sounds broadly fine. Starting to wish the solos would stop sounding like so much anonymous sub-Maiden wibbling though. (Mind you, anonymous sub-Maiden wibbling would have made me veeeerrrry happy about five years ago. Perhaps the problem isn’t with Pearl Jam’s disheartening descent into workmanlike mediocrity, and is in fact with my transformation into a bitterly cynical cad. Will consider further.)
Oh. So we’re still supposed to consider “Severed Hand” a good song, despite having had four years to know better. I’ll be over here looking at some impressive brickwork until it’s over.
The first stage patter of the night. “Eddie” chants. Every second word is “uh”. Makes some sort of tortured metaphor about the standing crowd being the ocean, and the seated lot in the balcony being the waves. Because he’s an idiot with precisely one train of thought, which he agonisingly applies analogously to basically every situation. Still, at least he’s not talking politics, I guess. (“Obama’s like the life-buoy that the captain threw overboard when we were drowning in the fathomy depths of Republicanism and stuff. In this metaphor, the captain is played by the voting public. But they weren’t the captain those other times when they elected Bush. Then they were dastardly pirate brigands, trying to sink the salty seamen that are the American peoples. Anyway. This one’s called “Oceans”. It’s about oceans.” Etc.)
Oh, wait, now I’ve missed a song.
Oh, good, it was just “Amongst The Waves”.
“Even Flow”, as played by the fast-forward button on a remote control. OhgodIwanttoslowitdownbutIcan’t.
Okay, Mike’s busy doing some wibbling again, so I’ll take a moment to comment on how much better “Even Flow” used to be before they tried to furiously squeeze seven minutes of song into twelve seconds of reality. For one thing, it used to have a swinging rhythm, or at least a nodding one. Now it just sort of barrels over you, and the only sort of movement you can imagine accompanying the song is a nimble flick of the wrist nudging the mouse to the “skip song” button. And Mike’s solo used to build and build, then climax extravagantly, then rejoin the others to build back into a triumphant final chorus; now he just sort of meanders about the upper reaches of his fretboard for a few minutes while Eddie has his obligatory smoke break. I mean, it was all so much SRV “appropriation”, but at least it was exciting. Shame, really.
GEMS AND RHINESTONES!!!
“Nothingman” sounds wonderful. They play it at the right speed and everything. Eddie’s voice handles it magnificently, leading me to two conclusions: firstly, when he’s given time to breathe, Ed’s still a pretty great singer; secondly, whoever’s mixing these booted legs has no idea what he’s doing. How can the guitars sound so clean and pristine on “Nothingman”, and like a dying marmoset chewing a scab on “Once”? It boggles my admittedly feeble mind.
A “Lukin”-based realisation. Pearl Jam concerts of late do not hold up to close scrutiny. While I was there, the huge blast of volume obviously precluded any sort of appreciation of the nuances of – say – Ed’s singing, or the guitar interplay. I was, for the most part, happily swept up in the commotion. Listening back (encumbered with an incompetent engineer in the mixing booth) the flaws are glaringly obvious. They’re not the gracefully-aging elder statesmen that Riot Act indicated in 2002. They’re still clawing at some fleeting scrap of rock n’ roll youth. Which is admirable in some ways, I concede, but in other ways, it’s rather annoying. Such as,when Ed tries to sing “Lukin” at 400% its optimal speed.
But hey, now “Down” is playing. I can’t be angry at the band who wrote “Down”. (Significantly, “Down” was written for Riot Act. I shudder to think what a Backspacer equivalent would sound like. “Amongst The Waves”, I suppose. Brrrr.)
“Got some if you need it”. Do you have some Brett Eliason?
Oh no. They’re playing “Comatose”. This wasn’t a very good song to begin with, and now it just sounds extra abrasive and rubbish because of the awful sound of the guitars. And… oh dear. They’ve had to tune it down half a step because Ed’s voice can’t hack it. So now it sounds out of tune too. And they’ve forgotten to play the duelling guitar bit after the first chorus. This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard Pearl Jam do. And I’ve heard “Johnny Guitar”.
A Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros cover will make up for that. I guess. Just sorta makes me want to listen to Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros instead. Again, their stony determination to play every song as tight and infuriatingly condensed as possible backfires tragically on Pearl Jam, because the joy of all Strummer music is the the coiled energy underneath the ostensibly loose music. At least “Arms Aloft” befits their straightforward approach more than “Know Your Rights”, I suppose. And it’s more interesting than another Neil Young cover. But try as he might, Ed never even captures a thimbleful of the nonchalant charisma and charm of old Strummer. Oooh – “Do The Evolution” (complete with an presumably unintentionally high-pitched scream-cum-yelp that sounds rather humiliating) and we’re into the encore break.
Again, Ed sounds perfectly fine on “Just Breathe”, a slow-paced acoustic number. Sensing a pattern? Unfortunately, “Just Breathe” is also a rather boring song, so Ed’s timbre counts for not much at all.
“Given To Fly” sounds a lot better when Mike’s guitar doesn’t sound like it’s hooked up to a dialysis machine instead of an effects board. And it’s Way. Too. Fast. This is actually starting to frustrate me more than I should be letting it. I shall pause briefly to find some cola to replenish my depleted patience.
New song! Excitement! “Of The Earth”! This sounded huge on the night! It’s gonna be
This is actually tragic. Someone at Kufala should have the flappy bits of skin on their elbows pinched repeatedly by a set of very sharp pincers, constantly, for perhaps a billion squillion years, as punishment for ruining the official unveiling of the most exciting thing Pearl Jam have written in nearly a decade. There’s an audience recording of “Of The Earth”, from this very show, and it sounds flabbergastingly superior to this. They’ve taken a thumping, snarling beast of a rock song, castrated it, and shaved a funny slogan into its shimmering coat. Now look: it’s quivering in the corner, embarrassed and scared, all because because of the uncommon magnitude of incompetence at Kufala.
Hmm. “Porch”, complete with uninspiring jam section, and into second encore.
Ed’s saying something about chopping wood and forests made of people. I think he’s admitting to killing someone with an axe, but that might not be entirely accurate. “When rap sheet’s clean, gonna put a little murder on it.”
I used to be able to listen to Pearl Jam booted legs without getting bored.
I wonder if Ed lets the crowd sing the first few minutes of Betterman because it’s a fun moment and he’s all into that kinda community nonsense (when he’s not being a lunatic axe murderer, natch), or because he needs to rest his voice a lot more often now. It’s weird to think that we concert-goers were possibly Ed’s equivalent of Axl Rose’s oxygen tank. Although whatever good it did him, he recklessly slashes his vocal cords to high heavens again against the rocky crags of the always wonderful “Save It For Later” tag.
I can’t be completely certain, but I think the combination of “Kick Out The Jams” and “Alive” sounded pretty hardcore on the night in question. It certainly doesn’t on the booted leg: they sound positively tame, like a furious tiger that you spritzed in the face with some calming foam, and now he’s just sort of lolling around in a drugged, woozy haze. Haha! Tiger so funny now!
Man, even “Ledbetter” sounds atrocious. The guitar tone is like a serrated skewer being pushed through the squishy membrane of my eardrum and into the pain centre of my fragile brain. It’s supposed to sound smooth and warm like melted butter, but instead, it is hard, stodgy margarine that’s been in the fridge for a year past expiry.
Let’s get one thing clear: the playing, while often sloppy (hey, it’s a rock show, a little sloppiness is expected, although the gaffe during “Comatose” would annoy me immensely if I planned on listening to it very often) is not the problem here. Pearl Jam aren’t the band they once were, and I’m not the fan I once was, but that’s not a bit important right now. At least 75% of the blame for this auditory assault lies squarely at the feet of the Kufala minion who took a poundingly sturdy rock show (which, as I’ve said, sounded perfectly fine on an audience recording) and turned it into a harsh, brittle thing that sounds like it was recorded off a car stereo.
It’s certainly the last time I’m going to buy, or “dubiously obtain”, any latter-day PJ booted legs. If I wanted to waste my money on Pearl Jam related nonsense that benefits me none, I’d renew my Ten Club membership next year.