The easiest place to start would be the seats. Our seats... words fail when trying to put perspective to them. We were, quite literally, front and center. I'd estimate us being no more than seven feet from Eddie's mic stand. With that in mind, I'm quite certain the band could have played nursery rhymes all night, and it would not have dulled my experience.
But now that I think about it, this actually has to begin much earlier. 1992 to be exact. That was the last time Pearl Jam graced a concert stage in Houston. And unquestionably, last night's capacity crowd sent a definitive, deafening message to the band -- don't let another eight years pass.
Part of any Pearl Jam show, of course, is the atmosphere. 1998's Albuquerque show was one of those moments when band and crowd seemed to be in perfect harmony, one feeding off of the other. Last night's first Houston show was another. Several times during the show, I peeked back from our seats (did I mention we sat front row, center?) to take the crowd in, to bask in the glow of pure, unadulterated energy.
The band itself seemed in good spirits, and the crowd appeared to push them to another level. For those who've never experienced Houston, it can get hot, but not the hot you're used to. Humidity is a bitch in these parts, and it can drain the last bit of energy from your being. The group, in particular Ed, ignored the drain, and no doubt fed off of the crowd's power.
Sitting where we were, of course, the show almost ceases to exist -- it becomes a surreal experience. Mike and I made eye contact several times, each being acknowledged with either a nod or a smile. He looked to really be enjoying himself, and his playing was on fire. Jeff seemed tired. His gaze never left the stage, and as the show concluded, he was resting his head on Stone's shoulder. Stone was to my right, and with Ed, Matt, Jeff and Mike all residing to my left, I didn't pay as much attention to him. Eddie, of course, grabbed most of my focus, not only because he was within arm's reach of me, but also because of the sheer power of his performance. If he fought exhaustion, or heat, it wasn't evident. Sweating almost from the moment he hit the stage, his performance was infectious. His energy, whether it fed the crowd or vice versa, never waned. He was tireless in his pursuit to entertain. Interesting is the amount of interaction Eddie had with the crowd. While he played primarily to the people to my left, handing most of his souvenirs their way, he recognized and acknowledged a good many of the fans in the pit area.
They opened with Long Road (after Eddie colloquially asked "How ya'll doin'"), and blitzkrieged into Breakerfall, a blistering version of one of my favorite Binaural offerings. That was it from the new album for some time. Perhaps wanting to keep things more... mainstream, considering how long it's been since they've played Houston, the set list was peppered with oldies, so to speak. Corduroy, Whipping, Hail Hail, Animal and Dissident followed, one crashing into the next. After Nothing As It Seems, Eddie spoke to the crowd for the first time, reflecting upon the show they had played not too long ago in 29-degree weather. He thought it happened in Wisconsin, but wasn't sure. Regardless, Houston felt like Hawaii, and almost on cue, several leis were thrown onto the stage from the crowd. Eddie grabbed at them, distributed them to his band mates, and then introduced Given To Fly as having been written in Hawaii.
Wishlist was dedicated to Eddie's nephew, whose picture he held up, a wallet-size K-Mart-style pose of the young tyke. He was, Eddie noted, a Texan. Betterman, somewhat disappointingly, contained no tag, and Stone was handed the mic shortly thereafter for Mankind. Mike somehow managed to completely botch the opening chords, (perhaps playing a different song?) slamming the show to a halt. Eddie quickly noted that one guitarist was "sabotaging" the other, and that such action was not unlike our government. Stone promised, when finished with Mankind, that the band would play more songs that the audience would recognize.
It was here the show took a turn. For me, and my fiancée, things had been beyond compare. Somehow, it would get much better. During Black, which was my fiancée's "first favorite Pearl Jam song," Eddie sang the second verse directly to her, eyes locked in. I always hate to hear Black, because I was at the Denton show in 1993 when Eddie announced that they had just played the song for the last time in concert. The selfish, fan boy in me wishes Eddie had held fast to that claim, and that we had, in fact, been the last audience to witness it live. But oh well. It was a thrill to watch Eddie connect with Tina. She would get the opportunity to deepen her "relationship" just moments later.
Porch followed Black, and Eddie took the opportunity to step from behind the mic to the stage's precipice. He then stepped across the gap between stage and... well, our seats, leaned into Tina, and sang to her, just inches from her face. Tina did what she felt was natural -- rubbed his head! I, meanwhile, was desperately trying to take a picture of the moment, but my camera, which I had just used, has a bit of delay in resetting for the next picture. And even though Eddie turned and smiled for me, it wouldn't take!!
Eddie again bridged the gap between stage and crowd during Even Flow, coaxing the frenzied fans into helping him sing the song. Before Last Kiss, Eddie engaged in a solo improv. It sounded, best I could tell, like a probable stab at George W. Bush, with some of the lyrics, which sounded completely made up on the spot, centering on a son, perhaps even from Bush Sr.'s perspective ("my son is slow."). The intent was obvious satire, as the band, several times, smiled and laughed at the lyrics, while Eddie looked to be struggling to make up the next verse.
Eddie finally addressed Houston, and their absence, trying to pinpoint the last time they had played the Bayou City. "1989, '90, '91, '92?" He also tried to pinpoint the Texas cities they'd visited, "There's Houston, Dallas, Austin... Beaver Creek...?" which, among other things, is a ski resort in Colorado. Whether that was his intention, your guess is as good as mine, but it cracked Ed up. Upon their return to the stage for the first encore, Eddie clapped and showed his appreciation for the response. The second encore began with Soon Forget. He spoke of the rich folk down front, and the "oil barons" on the lawn, smoking pot. Midway through the song, a string "broke" (no string was visibly broken, I think he merely screwed up the song). He then looked at his ukulele, pretended to say something to it, and then put it to his ear for the "response." In the interim, the crowd cheered. They stomped their feet and banged their chairs, resulting in a thunderous sound that caused Eddie to stop and pretend to not know where the noise was coming from. It was overwhelming. Smiling, nodding his head, the clamor grew until Eddie jumped back into the song, right at the moment he had stopped, igniting the crowd once again. He then called for the house lights for Yellow Ledbetter (which featured Stone on bass and Jeff on guitar). Mike went center stage, figuratively, as both Jeff and Stone left the song early to hang in the rafters (stage right). Eddie sat on the stage and watched in equal awe of Mike's power.
This marks my eight PJ show since 1992. I'd be hard pressed to name another show more immediate and powerful. Fueled by a terrific crowd, the band was in peak form. Needless to say, I'm pumped about tonight's second show.