You would think that, after all this time, that I would know better than to underestimate Eddie Vedder. The last time I did this was before what we all now know as La Paloma -- "It's not a big deal," I said. "It'll be the same set as the TFC." Yes, talk about famous last words.
These were the same thoughts I had on Saturday, November 13, when Ed (with C Average) were slated to open for the second night of the Who at the House of Blues. Once again, Ed managed to surprise us all. By the time Ed walked off the HOB stage Saturday night, I was referring to this show as a "mini-La Paloma." It was that worthy.
I had been lucky enough to get tickets for both nights of these shows, but gave up my Friday night ticket so that someone else could go instead. (It was also outrageously expensive, even if it *was* the Who.) So, I spent Friday evening in the lobby of the HOB in the company of half-a-dozen other PJ fans, skulking around, trying to look inconspicuous, and listening to Ed's set wafting from the club upstairs. We were joking and laughing and playing "Name That Tune" -- "Well, we know what he's going to play, we just don't know what order!" someone said. It was a lively set but not anything to write home about, especially if you had been lucky enough to see any of the previous Ed and C Average shows (say, TFC or the Palladium).
By the time I found myself one row from the stage Saturday night, right in front of where Ed was going to be standing, my expectations were not very high. At the time, I was not even particularly happy with where I ended up standing, but there were so many people on the other side of the stage -- Pete's side -- that we joked that that side of the floor was in danger of falling in.
So, I'd heard (but not seen -- well, except for 7 minutes that accidentally were broadcast to the downstairs monitors) the opening set the night before; not much had changed since I'd seen this combo at the TFC back in June ("Wishlist" and "Leaving Here" do not rate as significant changes in my book, although I admired their moxie at playing a song that the Who had once done). To be honest, by this point I was completely fed up with people making these shows into enormous Pearl Jam events. I had also been waiting in line since the night before. (I am not kidding. Then again, so was everyone else, hence my need to camp out on a Chicago sidewalk.) I was wound up and wired, and I WANTED TO SEE THE WHO. NOW.
But as a Who fan, there was no way I could overlook the significance of this show to Ed, a fellow Who fan. And as a Pearl Jam fan, I could not overlook the historical significance of this event from that perspective. If nothing else, it would be nice for Ed to have some friendly support in the crowd, since he was apparently heckled quite heavily the night before. And, hey, if I *have* to see an opening band before the Who, we could certainly do much worse than a member of my second favorite band (who also happens to be an enormous Who fan). (Oh, have the Who had some horrendous opening acts in their time. *shudder*)
So, Ed walks on and he is BEAMING. There is just no denying that the man is effusively happy. (My hastily-scrawled notes say "happy as shit!" I would understand why -- at least a little -- 30 minutes later.) He is carrying a guitar I have never seen before; blonde, acoustic, 12-string. (I realize that a man of Ed's wealth could very well have several dozen instruments at home with which I am not acquainted. But this one looked old, it looked loved, it looked weathered, it looked well-played. I would, of course, later find out this observation was correct.) It also seems enormous on Ed's frame.
Smiling broadly, Ed begins the ubiquitous "Last Kiss". The crowd receives it well, although damn they are talking, and loudly, beyond the first five rows or so. He then address the audience, saying that he'd like to tell us a story, except that it's a little loud. There is much shushing from the audience in support of this, but it's really pretty hopeless. (A Chicago-area friend described the atmosphere of the House of Blues as 'a cross between a sports bar and a music club,' and she's right. Not that there's anything wrong with either of those, but the atmosphere of the former is not conducive to the latter.) He mentions how there have been some people who have died -- he mentions Walter Payton (for whom Ed had painted "#34" and "PAYTON" on his black Schecter, as we'd see later), and then, that there had recently been a death in his family, an older woman, and that she just had brought a lot of "light" to everyone. (No, we do not know who Ed was talking about.)
The story continues: Ed then tells us that these recent events had caused him to think about death, and dying, and "who would get all my stuff if I died." ("I'll take the Lifehouse demos!" yells Dave, who runs petetownshend.net. I also offer to take Ed's Who collection off his hands.) Ed laughs. He tells us that he'd like to sing a new song, one that we haven't heard, "Unless you were out on my hotel balcony today when I was writing this." WHOA, I think. Okay, now you've gotten *my* attention. He starts to play, and then stops and once again requests quiet -- "I think you'll like this -- it's even got a punchline."
If I thought Bridge was a difficult environment in which to absorb a new song, that was nothing compared to this. I am hyper beyond all possible belief, wound up, emotional, tired. I only brought enough paper to write down song titles. I am not happy about having to take notes as it is, with the amount of shit I have gotten from people about these shows (I am getting shit from Pearl Jam fans for being a Who fan, and vice versa). But dammit, it's a new song from Ed, and I am going to make the most of it. It is a hard task; it is hard to hear, it is hard to concentrate. It's a pleasant enough melody, somewhat melancholy, as Ed sings about how he's been thinking about dying, and how he doesn't want to die, and"Oh, I don't wanna die, but if I doThe club breaks up in laughter and applause. It was cute. I have no idea if this really was a song, or just a punchline, or an extended inside joke. But, if nothing else, it won the audience over a little more.
I'm leaving everything...to The Who...."
Ed is trying to tune the guitar; he seems somewhat at odds with it. He asks if we want to hear "Small Town" (so that's what Ed calls "Elderly Woman!"), or if he should "bring the guys out." Surprisingly, the audience applauds the idea of "Elderly Woman." Ed struggles with the guitar for a few more minutes -- he says he can't get it to sound right -- and then when someone down front heckles, "Don't blame the instrument!" He smiles and says, "You're right..." Then, he holds up the guitar and says, "Isn't this a beautiful guitar? It used to belong to Pete!" Major applause. He then tells us, "My wife bought it for me at the Maryville auction the other night.... ya know, the bidding was really getting up there, and she turned to me and said [imitating Beth]: 'There's no way a banker is taking that guitar home!'" Much, much applause, after which Eddie manages to coax a warm but hesitant version of "Elderly Woman" out of Pete Townshend's old guitar, and the whole audience seems to know the words.
After this, Ed announces Brad and Jon from C Average, who walk out, looking somewhat -- shell-shocked. (I can only imagine.) "Here's Jon and Brad from C Average...tonight, I hope we get a B+." They slam into a kick-ass version of "Watch Outside," followed by "Running Out Of Time." Ed closes his eyes and starts to strum a familiar strain, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I think it's going to be "MFC" (one of my favorite songs of all time and a definite surprise), but instead, I stand open-mouthed as he goes into the "Untitled" improv from Live On Two Legs. I love it there, and here, I love it just as much, if not more. It's warm, it's fluid, it's intense, it's heartfelt. I wonder if this isn't connected to the story about Beth and the guitar. I don't have much time to wonder, but instead of segueing into "MFC" as I'd hoped, instead it's a killer version of "Driven To Tears." Even with fucking up the words here and there (hey, he does it at Pearl Jam shows, ya know, where he's not opening for his childhood idols), this song is just -- driven. They are kicking ass and taking names. This is a GOOD set! People are nodding along and smiling. "Wishlist" follows -- there is a line about "I wish I was a Chicago crowd about to see the Who" (I think - again, it was somewhat hard to hear). Instead of a guitar solo, Jon takes the solo on bass. It's well done, well executed, and it's a familiar enough song to get the crowd to respond some more. Nicely done.
This is followed by "Love --> Building On Fire," and then Ed says, "Well, only an idiot would play a Who song in front of a Who crowd," and they kick into "Leaving Here." Last night I heard the false start and the need to start again, but tonight they are wailing, and have everything to be proud of on this rendition. Finally, Ed says, "If you're from Chicago, I love ya; if you're a Who fan, I love ya; that should cover everyone, thanks a lot" and we're treated to that wonderful, raucous, punky version of "Patriot" that was debuted at the TFC back in June. "The Who are next," says Ed, followed by a genuinely ebullient "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" with his fist in the air as he left the stage.
They did well. All around me, Who fans/friends are tapping me on the shoulder, saying, "That was really good! I really liked that!" and "I don't even like Pearl Jam much, but that was good!" But, the best compliment I heard was well after the Who's set, when I ran into Henk from the Netherlands, a crane operator on the docks in Rotterdam, wouldn't know Pearl Jam from a hole in the ground -- who excitedly came up to me and said, "I liked your band very very much! They were very powerful, very good!"
I think Ed woulda liked to have heard that. And me, I'm sorry that I thought for a second that he wouldn't ultimately rise to this challenge. Friday night, Ed related that when Pete asked him to open, that he should "make him look good". I can't speak for Friday's set, but he certainly did so tonight.
Copyright © 1999 Caryn Rose