Pearl Jam fans, young and old, flooded American Airlines Arena on Saturday evening for the band’s first stint in the 305 since it played Bayfront Park back in the mid-1990s. But these weren’t so much fans as a congregation. And the six men onstage weren’t so much rock icons as snake handlers, here to placate the faithful with love and benevolence and pure musical badassery.
PJ had not played the South Florida area in eight years — when the band toured through West Palm Beach’s Cruzan Amphitheater in 2008 — so the faithful were thirsty. And the faithful waited. And then the faithful were swept up by the kinetic raw force that is a Pearl Jam performance.
It’s been a while, but Miami was once again reminded of a simple truth: A Pearl Jam concert is a sort of religious experience more than just a mere rock show.
Guitarist Mike McCready threw up his hands and rained down guitar picks across the waiting throng, like a high priest sprinkling holy water onto the flock. One guy rushed the stage and dove into the crowd. At one point, a man in a wheelchair was brought up onto the stage (more on him later). One fan even had “Christ” written on his face.
Midway through the show, Eddie Vedder pointed out two young men in the front row. And there they were, on the giant video monitors for all to see: one guy’s forehead had "Tremor" written on it. The other guy’s read "Christ."
“In a place that’s famous for spring break,” Vedder playfully quipped, “here are two guys that won’t be getting laid anytime soon.” The crowd roared with laughter, as did our new friends Tremor and Christ. But Vedder appeased the men, scratching whatever song the band had originally planned to do at that point to perform "Tremor Christ," a cut from PJ's third studio album, Vitology.
“Little secrets, tremors turn to quake!” Vedder belted into the microphone under azure lighting, the band members pounding out their parts behind his tortured tenor. “The smallest oceans still get big, big waves!” The crowd sang along in unison. The two men went from self-deprecating bemusement to pure joy.
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A couple of songs later, the band performed "State of Love and Trust" for a fan carrying a sign that announced he was celebrating his 30th birthday by attending his 50th Pearl Jam show.
This is Pearl Jam live in a nutshell.
PJ never fails to put on the kind of show that leaves you not wanting to listen to music for a couple of days; the kind that keeps resonating in your head, reminding you of specific moments that swept over you like — well, like big, big waves.
And each set list is an event. “Holy shit, they did 'Pilate'!” you’ll think to yourself. Another die-hard will remember the band’s crunching rendition of "Porch." Still others will remember the band going with a couple of their old radio-friendly hits, like "Jeremy," "Black," and "Alive." But through and through, these shows are a celebration of the community the band has had with its innumerable fans through the decades.
Saturday marked the second performance of Pearl Jam’s 2016 tour (the first being the night before at the BB&T Center in Fort Lauderdale). They opened Miami’s show with "Corduroy" — ironically a song written by Vedder about how he loathes being chummy with fans who act like they’re long-lost friends — and straight into a forceful rendition of "Do the Evolution." Both songs crashed onto the crowd like a fist to the jaw and set the tone for the rest of the band’s nearly three-hour, dual-encore show.
And, as ever, Miami’s performance was pure concentrated Pearl Jam: emotional, visceral, honest, droll, raw, heartfelt, and political.
Pearl Jam has been putting on emotionally driven shows like this for the past 25 years, and its political views remain as innate, introspective, and emphatic as its love for its fans. During a break between songs, Vedder spoke of what a great venue the American Airlines Arena is and how it’s going to be halfway under water in a few years, due to climate change.
“But I hear your governor has it under control,” he said sarcastically. “I’ll put my faith in him.”
Fans loudly booed Gov. Rick Scott as the band went right into "Infallible," a song that features lyrics like, “Pay disasters no mind” and “by thinking we’re infallible, we’re tempting fate instead.”
Legendary for their support of war vets, Vedder at one point also reminded the crowd that Florida has more veterans than any other state and spoke earnestly on how pitifully the government treats them.
“They’ve failed to reward them for such incredible selflessness,” said Vedder.
The band then performed a stellar cover of Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb," in honor of Floyd founding member Roger Waters, who does a lot of work with veterans.
Then there was the rarely performed "W.M.A." — an angry, crackling anti-cop/anti-white-establishment anthem written in 1993, yet just as relevant in our current times.
During a quieter, yet no-less-emotional, set — the evening’s first encore — a visibly moved Vedder performed a gorgeous rendition of "Just Breathe," which he dedicated to a close friend who recently lost his wife to breast cancer.
As for the rest of the boys, the performances were crisp and tight as ever. Stone Gossard remains the understated rhythm guitarist, coolly holding down the fort with his dirty foot-pounding licks. Meanwhile, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron again proved that they are one of rock’s greatest live rhythm sections.
Then there’s McCready, who basically puts on his own show on his side of the stage, gyrating his body, doing scissor kicks, pointing to the crowd, coaxing folks out of their seats, and melting down the venue with thundering guitar solos — one of which he did behind his back. McCready is often overshadowed by Vedder’s onstage charisma, but when he wails into his riffs, you’re reminded of his stunning talent as a lead guitarist. This was especially prevalent during "Even Flow." And his wildness is no less entertaining and jolting than Vedder’s. At one point, adding to the frenzy and fervor, McCready jumped off the stage and ran a circle around the floor as arena security surrounded and ran with him to protect him from the adoring crowd reaching out to touch him.
Then there was the man in the wheelchair.
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Reminiscing about the last time they were in Miami, Vedder shared a vivid memory of a man who impossibly crowd-surfed from the back of the Bayfront Park audience all the way onto the stage while in a wheelchair. The man turned out to be Mark Zupan, the eventual star of Murderball, a 2005 documentary about disabled men who play wheelchair rugby. Vedder then told the American Airlines Arena crowd that he had heard Zupan was in the audience. And then, during the band’s closing song, Zupan and a couple of his friends were allowed onto the stage. As he tossed tambourines into the crowd during the band’s standard finale — Neil Young’s "Rockin’ in the Free World" — a pleasantly surprised Vedder spotted Zupan air-drumming along on the stage and threw him a tambourine. The athletic Zupan caught it like a football, the crowd went wild, and Pearl Jam pealed into the rest of the song that crescendoed into a thundering climax in which Vedder smashed his mic stand onto the stage with the violence of a faith healer exorcising the building’s demons.
As it is with every Pearl Jam show, the feeling inside the AAA Saturday night was palpable — all at once chaotic, intense, and unflagging.
Pearl Jam’s enduring longevity comes, mostly, from its relationship with its longtime devotees. The band's live performances bring fans back to a touchstone moment in their lives. That’s why everyone sings every word to each song with so much passion. Some sing with tears, some with fists pumping into the air. But everyone is caught up in the fervor. It’s a moveable feast, these shows. Because Pearl Jam is one of the few bands that has a special symbiotic relationship with its fans.
And the Miami congregation was once again blessed to have experienced it full-throttle.