Thursday, September 29, 2016

Pearl Jam at Randall's Island, NYC, September 29, 1996 - 20th Anniversary of a Great Concert!

Okay, so I wrote the following a few years ago, when I turned around and realized, on September 29, 2012, that it had been exactly 16 years since one of the most memorable concert experiences that I ever had. That would be seeing Pearl Jam for the first time at Randall's Island in New York City back in 1996, when they were finally touring in support of the "No Code" album.

There are a lot of things that immediately come to mind when I think about that concert. First of all, it happened to fall on my then girlfriend (now ex-wife) and my first anniversary. Secondly, although I was beginning to go to a lot of concerts by that point, this concert felt somehow like a turning point. Pearl Jam was a huge band, and they were my favorites. Up to that point, despite having seen a growing number of concerts, there always was that one band, my favorites, whom I had yet to see. Then, suddenly, my friend managed to obtain tickets shortly after I returned from a trip to Chicago with another friend (who also happened to be a Pearl Jam fan and wound up going with us). This was the one band that I really, at the time, felt ready to drop everything to go and see, if the opportunity presented itself, and it finally did. I came somewhat close a couple of times in 1994, but ultimately failed. So, the next time that they came around, I was determined to see them come what may. When that friend managed to snag these tickets, it felt like pure elation, and I felt like a little kid eagerly anticipating the Christmas holiday to come, knowing in my head that the date was approaching, but feeling that, somehow, it could not come soon enough.

Even today, I remember how glad that concert made me feel, and just how huge it was for me. Since then, I have been to 24 Pearl Jam concerts, and have seen almost every song that meant something special to me, and then some! Some of the shows were amazing, and for some of them, I had amazing seats, including the second time that I saw them, making a point of reciprocating my friend's purchase of these tickets back in 1996 by bringing him to Pearl Jam's concert at East Rutherford in 1998, where we had second row center.

Yet, despite having some better seats (well, Randall's Island was standing room only, so there technically were no seats) at some other concerts, this particular Pearl Jam concert really stands out for me even to this day. Rarely has any concert mad me feel this good. There have been other concerts, and I have seen some amazing bands and performances. Very few of them made me feel anywhere near what the Pearl Jam concert in 1996 made me feel.I discussed some of these a few years ago, and shared my thoughts in past blogs, and will add those to this particular blog entry below. But seeing Pearl Jam finally take the stage, after years and years of waiting for that opportunity, felt just amazing! It wound up being the longest concert to that point that the band had ever done, and attained a certain legendary status among PJ fans. I remember how crowded it was, people body surfing, and how some of the staff started spraying grateful fans with water to help cool us off. For that matter, simply arriving at Randall's Island, where just a couple of months and change before, that same friend and I had seen Lollapalooza, was an amazing experience. We were discussing the Fastbacks, and he mentioned how Eddie Vedder "creams over them." 

Hard to believe that it has been twenty years since then!

So, here are some thoughts that I had four years ago on that concert, which took place on this day, two decades ago:

I have seen a lot of concerts in my own time. It's approaching two hundred since 1992, when my brother and I went to see Metallica and Guns 'n Roses, with Faith No More as the opening act, at Giants Stadium in the summer of 1992. That concert was intense, particularly Metallica's set. It was so loud, so long, so energetic, and it left a lasting impression. It was quite memorable. More recently, there have been other concerts that were quite memorable, as well. Seeing Pink Floyd at Yankees Stadium in 1994. Seeing the Vote for Change Finale in 2004, with incredible acts like Pearl Jam, REM, the Dave Matthews Band, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, Jackson Brown, James Taylor, the Dixie Chicks, and with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band as the closers. That was incredible. I have seen Paul McCartney give a free concert in Quebec on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of that city. Sir Paul was also involved in another incredible concert memory: joining Ringo Starr on stage a couple of years ago on Ringo's 70th Birthday and playing "Birthday". It was as close to a Beatles reunion, or a Beatles show, that I'll have ever seen, most likely, and as a big Beatles fan (could you guess?), that was very memorable! And since that article that I wrote about this Pearl Jam concert, I was at the 12/12/12 Sandy Benefit concert, which included some huge names that included Eddie Vedder, who accompanied Roger Waters on "Comfortably Numb," Bruce Sprinsteen and the E-Street Band, Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Kanye West (not a big fan of his, admittedly), Chris Martin of Coldplay with guest star Michael Stipes of R.E.M., Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Paul McCartney, who at one point brought out the remaining members of Nirvana to perform a song, and this wound up being the first public performance of "Sirvana." Some at the time were suggesting that this was the greatest concert ever. Nowadays, some are suggesting that the Iheart concerts in the desert, also with huge names, are the greatest. For my part, I still think that Woodstock tops all of these in terms of sheer brilliance and cultural influence, and I think that Roger Waters performance of "The Wall" live in Berlin back ni 1990 deserves honorable mention, but I digress. 

I started going to see a lot of concerts particularly starting in 1992, and especially gaining momentum in 1994. But at that point, there was one major act that I really wanted to see, probably more than all others, but which it sometimes felt I would never see: Pearl Jam. The thing about Pearl Jam was that, at the time, they were phenomenally popular, probably at the height of their power, if you will. Granted, much of that was the cult of personality surrounding lead vocalist Eddie Vedder. He was the iconic leader of the group, if you will. The type of guy that, as cliche as this sounds, women wanted to be with, and men wanted to be. They had an incredible, raw energy to them in those days. They have retained some of that over the years, but at that time, it was their defining trait. Their music was intense, and charged with powerful and meaningful lyrics, with more than a touch of poetry to them. They really were a band that seemed almost to offer at least a little something to everyone. I desperately wanted to see them, and felt, on many levels, that no matter how many concerts and acts I saw, it would not be or feel complete or impressive until I saw Pearl Jam.

But they rarely ever toured, and never seemed to come to my area, the New York greater metropolitan area, at the time. True, they came around for several shows in their earliest days in the early nineties, playing some very memorable, even legendary shows, at places like the Limelight, but I really started getting into Pearl jam early in 1993, and by then, they were becoming a rare act to see in New York. They had actually come in the area and done a show at the Paramount, in Madison Square Garden (but not outright MSG), and I had desperately tried to get tickets, but was unsuccessful. I waited outside on the side of a road in New York City with a group of equally determined friends to try and get stand by tickets to Saturday Night Live, and actually managed to get one of these tickets. But there was literally not one opening that night, and so all stand by tickets were sent home. I even tried to see them at the Boston Gardens, and came somewhat close, but no cigar. I collected bootlegs of their shows by then, and that 1994 tour still looms large in my memory, although the pleasure of actually going to one of those shows was not mine.

Eventually, however, the opportunity did come. I was friends with someone who had a penchant for obtaining rare tickets, and he managed to get tickets to one of the two Randall's Island shows that the band scheduled for September of 1996, to support their latest album, No Code. This came around a month after the release of that album, which I remember having gotten while on a trip to Chicago, in late August. So, knowing that I would finally get to see them, I was incredibly excited. I just couldn't wait to finally see this group in concert.

There were three of us who went to the concert together. We got there early, and I remember kind of just taking in the atmosphere. The Fastbacks finally came out to open the show, and then it was Ben Harper, who I was not familiar with at the time, but was tremendously impressed with. Still, the group that I wanted to see was in the waits, and the excitement grew. It seemed to take forever for them to take the stage, and it was so hot that night, I remember. Maybe it was just because we were all so tightly packed in. There were a lot of people there.

Finally, the lights went out, and I saw candles on the stage that Pearl Jam was about to take. I don't remember having seen candles at a concert before like that, so it seemed like a new touch. The band came on stage, and it was a thrill to see the immediately identifiable locks of Vedder's then still long hair, and knowing that they were finally there, that the concert had finally begun.

But the music waited, as Eddie Vedder spoke first. He assured us that while the previous night (they had played Randall's Island the night before, as I understand it, in heavy rain) had been highly charged, tonight, they were going to take it a bit easier. But he had the feeling, he told us, that the music would be better sharper, than it had ever been, and that the concert would be longer, maybe, than any other that they had ever performed.

He was right. It wound up being, at that time, the longest show that the band had ever played (it had since been overtaken, and the longest concert that they have played to date now, to my knowledge, was the third Mansfield show in 2004, when they tried to play mostly all different songs in the three shows combined, and opened that third and final show in the Boston area with an acoustic set prior to their main set).

They opened up with "Sometimes", which is also the opening song of their then new album, No Code. It was a strange choice, I thought. It was followed by an intense version of "Go", and the intensity was on. The crowd was really fired up, and seemed as excited as I was in just seeing the band, finally. The next few songs were also highly charged, despite Vedder's previous prediction. During "Animal", Vedder stopped the song and warned the crowd that people were acting crazy, and given the overly crowded circumstances, he did not want something to happen. He even mentioned that they did not think they could keep playing music if someone was to lose their life at one of their shows, something that a friend of mine mentioned some years later, following the tragic incident at Roskilde during the Pearl Jam set.

In any case, that show indeed was legendary, and just as Vedder had forecast, they did in fact play more sings, and played a longer show, than they had ever done before. Everyone went home satisfied, and that certainly included me. I was flying high for maybe a week or so after, feeling so privileged to have felt like that. Since then, only the shows that I mentioned earlier have really allowed me to feel that way, as far as concerts are concerned. Most recently, it was Ringo's 70th birthday show that made me feel that concert magic. It's a nice feeling, and I remember just feeling so content following that legendary 1996 show. Even the massive traffic jam following the show's end did not bother me. Nothing bothered me after that for a while.

That show was on this date, September 29th, exactly 20 years ago, and I was there! I was sure that it would forever be the greatest Pearl Jam show that I would ever see, but I have seen them over twenty times since then. One of the other very memorable shows that I saw of theirs also occurred on this date, back in 2004. It was also part of the Vote for Change tour, about two weeks before that Washington DC finale that I mentioned earlier in this blog. That also had an incredible set list, and was one of the most intense shows of Pearl Jam's that I had ever seen. Even that was now eight years ago. They were both a long time ago, but, ah, what memories!

Here's a link to Pearl Jam's website with the setlist of this 1996 show (as well as an illustration of the poster from the show, now a real colector's item):

And here's a link to the other September 29th show, eight years later in 2004, and eight years ago on this date:

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