|ALL PHOTOS BY JASON GONULSEN|
In just five days, Pearl Jam's Ten will turn 25.
I first heard the album with friends in the back of a minivan. We were in Rockford, Illinois, keeping warm from the cold morning wind, about an hour from trying out for the Illinois State Select soccer team. The rain was hitting the windshield. We were wearing shin guards and cleats. Our muscles were tight from the ride up. But our minds were released in that minivan. The rest of the day wasn't so cold. We all made it.
Ten was the album that convinced me that music was the spark, the window to something greater. A glowing conduit leading away from doubt. I needed it then. And I need it now.
To me, Pearl Jam concerts are what everything live music should be. The set list is never the same. I've written this before, but it can't be said enough: a performance of "Alive" or "Black" is never the same. The venues, of course, change from city to city -- arenas, stadiums...and then there's sacred ground like Wrigley Field in Chicago, home of the Chicago Cubs, a place where Pearl Jam scheduled two shows to close out their 2016 tour, the second of which is happening tonight.
Context: Eddie Vedder is a Cubs fan. He sat with Theo Epstein during a few Cubs playoff games last October, before leaving for a South American tour. And he even told reporters that, from then on, he would never tour again during Major League Baseball playoffs.
So these shows are special. Even if Vedder were a Cardinals fan or a White Sox fan, these shows would still be. Case in point, Pearl Jam played two shows at Fenway Park in Boston earlier this month, and from everything I read, they were epic three-hour performances.
I am a Cardinals fan first and White Sox fan second. Yet, Wrigley Field means everything to me. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, my brother and I would watch Cubs games on WGN -- we thought the ivy was cool, and we looked up to Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, collecting their baseball cards, even hanging a Dawson poster in our bedroom. He was the Hawk, man.
So I thought of all that before the show on Saturday night at Wrigley Field. I walked in a back entrance, through a metal detector, into those old, narrow Wrigley Field corridors that lead to the seats (the sign said "STAIR," not "STAIRS"), and then the field. I stood five feet from the ivy and bleachers. I walked on the warning track. I looked toward home plate with thousands of fans finding their seats. Wow!
Three years ago, I attended Pearl Jam's first-ever show at Wrigley, but that was marred by a two-hour plus rain delay, after the band had already performed seven songs. The momentum was lost, making the experience more of a feat of endurance as opposed to a show that blew me away.
On Saturday night, Pearl Jam blew me away. Completely. My mind will be there for weeks.
The second song, "Release," was probably the best live-music moment I've witnessed this year. While the song was being started, Vedder took a moment to address the audience:
"Last time (in 2013) it felt like a once in a lifetime experience. When the lightning hit today I thought we were gonna have the same experience again but it looks like the weather is on our side.” He then made eye contact with a fan named John. "Four days, He lined up four days ago to hear this song. He has been going through some hard times. We wanna help him out so help us sing it.."
They sang. Man, did they sing.
If I never hear an audience sing again, I can at least say I heard Pearl Jam fans sing "Release" with Eddie Vedder...from the photo pit, no less! I can't tell you how many times I listened to this song in high school, sitting in the back of a school bus, traveling home from Bloomington or Champaign, thinking that I wasn't good enough, my confidence wavering with each passing mile. But that song lifted me up. And 20 plus years later, there I was: singing it while photographing the man who led the charge. I'm still having a hard time believing that actually happened.
But it happened. And it kept happening.
As I walked out of the photo pit, around the crowd of people singing along to "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter in a Small Town," I passed the Cubs' dugout, strolled behind home plate. The words were ringing: "I just want to scream...helllo! My God it's been so long, never dreamed you'd return!"
I wanted to stop, soak it all in...just lay down behind home plate and live there for a few hours. If I could bottle up that feeling in a video and carry it with me for the rest of my days, I would, maybe so I could show people why I keep coming back. It's that feeling. I haven't found it anywhere else. I suppose I never will.
I'd rather not do a play-by-play, so I'll talk about two other moments that stood out.
One was during a cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," a folk song turned into an impossible explosion by guitarist Mike McCready. The man abused his guitar, making sounds I've never heard, completely obliterating its strings, its body, its being. Even Dylan himself would have approved of what McCready was doing with his song. A convulsion. A statement that McCready is one of the best living guitarists in the world. His talents echoed Dylan's words:
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins
And he kept doing it during "Even Flow," "Corduroy," "Alive," and countless others. The man does not know what "going through the motions" means; he's in constant evolving motion -- playing behind his back, closing his eyes, ripping through solos with Usain Bolt-like confidence and power.
But there was another person who upstaged him and everyone else on this evening: McCready's friend, Steve Gleason.
Gleason, as you may know, was a former safety in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, and also responsible for arguably the biggest moment in post-Katrina Saints history: he blocked a punt, leading to a touchdown, at the New Orleans Superdome, in the team's first game back home after the city recovered from the hurricane's devastation. He was a light to the city then, and he's a blazing source of inspiration now.
He was also diagnosed with ALS in 2011. I want to make this very clear: I have no idea what Steve Gleason battles day-to-day, and it's not for me to act like I understand. But, Steve, know this: you made me and everyone around me -- thousands and thousands of people -- think about a certain lyric as you introduced "Inside Job" from the stage.
Here's his introduction:
How I choose to feel is how I am.
I'll remember that. I'll take it with me.
And now, more than ever, I'm extremely grateful to learn about about life from people like Steve Gleason and Pearl Jam.
Don't take it for granted. Don't throw it away.
Do not lose your faith.
How I choose to feel is how I am.
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Do the Evolution
Amongst the Waves
I Got Id
Mind Your Manners
Masters of War
I Am a Patriot
I Believe in Miracles
Let Me Sleep
All the Way