The morning of Saturday, June 26, 1999 felt ordinary enough. I had no idea that I was about to win the Pearl Jam lottery.
Aside from the actual lottery, there is no other lottery I'd rather win. I've been a big Pearl Jam fan since September of 1995, after first seeing the band play live in San Diego, where I live. I knew within the first couple of notes - "Release" was the opening song - that I was about to witness a great live performance. By the final note, my Pearl Jam obsession was a fait accomplis.
I've since spent much vacation time and many hard-earned dollars seeing as many Pearl Jam shows as I can. I was very fortunate to see 17 shows on the 1998 tour. I made sure to see the final two shows of the tour in West Palm Beach, FL so as to minimize my Pearl Jam downtime.
While I felt content at the end of the 1998 tour, it did not take long before my desire to see Pearl Jam live returned. Like a junkie, I soon began to need a fix.
I was tempted to go to the Tibetan Freedom Concert but ultimately declined. Among other reasons, at the time TFC tickets were sold, I still held out hope that the band would tour Europe in the fall, and I wanted to conserve my resources. I was subsequently disappointed, but not surprised, when the band announced that it would not tour again until the Spring of 2000 at the earliest.
Of course, I was happy to learn in the week after the TFC that Eddie Vedder would be backing up the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Hollywood Palladium on Friday, June 25, 1999. It was an easy decision to make the 120 mile drive from San Diego to Los Angeles for the show.
The L.A. show was what I expected, which is to say very good but not extraordinary. The setlist was identical to TFC, minus Betterman. It was a high-energy although brief set. Ultimately, it left me wanting more.
There was a surprising message on my voice mail when I returned home from L.A. at approximately 1:00 a.m. Rumor had it that Eddie Vedder was going to play another show "somewhere down the coast" in the near future. Details would be provided if and when available.
The late Friday night took its toll and I did not wake up on Saturday until approximately 10:00 a.m. I immediately began trying to figure out where Eddie Vedder might play. I searched the 5h Concert Chronology to find out where Pearl Jam had played before. I called the Casbah, the San Diego venue where Hovercraft will be playing in the near future. I called various bars that and small venues where Pearl Jam had played before or where I thought there might be that right combination of remoteness yet the ability to offer live music. To no avail.
Out of ideas, I left to go visit a friend. I returned home at approximately 2:15 p.m. I came home once again to surprising message on my answering machine. The rumors are true! Eddie Vedder is playing tonight at La Paloma in Encinitas! Tickets go on sale at 2:30 p.m. People are already lined up outside the venue.
Holy shit! I call the venue. A recording begins "Tonight. Eddie Vedder live in concert…" Oh my God! I listen long enough to get partial directions to the venue and race out the door.
I've never driven my car faster. All I can think about is that tickets are going on sale in 15 minutes, there is already a line of people outside the venue and I need probably 25 minutes to get to where I'm going in north coastal San Diego.
I exit the freeway at 2:37 p.m. and stop at the 1st pay phone. I learn that tickets are not being sold by phone. I get the remaining directions to the venue, which is less than 5 minutes away.
I arrive and illegally park. I run to the end of the line, which extends to the end of the block. In most places, the line is 3 to 5 people wide. I'm worrying that tickets will sell out before I get my chance.
I begin taking in the scene. The letters on the v-shaped, old-fashioned marquee, some red some black, say that Eddie Vedder is appearing live tonight. Two shows, 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.
The Spanish-style building (beige in color with an orange tile roof) is obviously very old. In the 2nd show later that evening, Eddie would tell the lucky 390 that the building was 71 years old. It would eventually become clear that Eddie's long-term desire to play in the interesting venue was an important reason why San Diegans were getting such a special treat on this evening.
Above the marquee is a large, vertical sign. The white letters on the brown background read "La Paloma." A painted bird and flowers garnish the letters of the sign.
A small, circular balcony with a black iron rail sits on the 2nd level of the building. In the 1st show later that evening, Eddie would comment that he watched traffic through the balcony earlier in the day. He specifically described watching a reporter for a local San Diego paper doing a double take as he drove by in his car reading the marquee.
Two guys get in line just behind me. They've already bought four tickets (two per show, the maximum) and they are getting back in line to get more tickets for a friend. I ask them the venue capacity. "390" was the response. A bell goes off in my head. This was the first clue that, assuming I can get a ticket, I'm in for a special evening.
I ask the guys if the venue takes credit or ATM cards. No, cash only was the response. I ask them what is the price of the ticket. $10 the response. Wow! What a bargain! Clearly this is not a Ticketmaster venue. More importantly, thank God I have sufficient funds.
After approximately 15 minutes, I finally get my turn at the ticket booth. The ticket booth itself is another reminder of the old age of the venue. Pentagon-shaped, the ticket booth, except for the glass, is entirely decorated with small mosaic tiles.
Whew! I'm in time! There are tickets left for both shows. The tickets are tiny old-style pre-printed, numbered movie tickets. The only place you see such tickets nowadays are at raffles and carnivals. La Paloma still has the old-fashioned ticket dispenser.
I return home and begin looking at various Pearl Jam websites to see if the word is out. Surprisingly, it's not. There is not one word about the show anywhere. Amazing.
During the 2nd show, Eddie would tell the lucky 390 that he and/or Pearl Jam tried twice before, unsuccessfully, to do a show at La Paloma. Eddie didn't elaborate, but I knew from a conversation with a security guard between shows that the prior efforts were aborted because too many people found out.
Out of curiosity, I asked people throughout the evening how they had found out about the show. There were only two categories of responses: (1) they happened to walk or drive by and see the marquee; or (2) they had received a tip. Most people fell into the former category. And most of those who received a tip had some connection to Eddie.
The end result, of course, was that very few hardcore Pearl Jam fans got to see the show. This is most unfortunate. In a perfect world, shows like the June 26, 1999 show at La Paloma would only be available to the hardcore fans.
I have a sinking feeling that the other unfortunate consequence of the show's very low profile is that there are no recordings of it. In addition to the facts that there were only 390 fans to begin with, only a few of which were hardcore fans, the odds of an audience recording are further decreased by the fact that management did not allow audio recorders into the venue.
For what it's worth, in between shows I made a personal appeal to management regarding recorders. To no avail. The response was that Eddie did not want to allow recorders because of the intimacy of the event and because the music wasn't very well-rehearsed.
With the help of Ben (more on Ben later), I nevertheless succeeded in sneaking recording equipment into the second show. Again to no avail. The recording did not turn out. I've never figured out whether good show-taping is a skill or talent. Regardless, I don't have it. For this I apologize. Profoundly.
For the record, all or parts of the show were videotaped side stage, presumably by friends and family. Hopefully the fans can get their hands on one or more of these tapes.
Anyway, I digress. At home after buying my tickets, I talk briefly to the beloved individual who gave me the tip. We discuss the fact that there are two shows and surmise that the reason is because Eddie and the band do not know enough songs to do just one show. I'm fully expecting to see the TFC set, and only the TFC set, both at 8 and 11 p.m. I would soon learn that I was so wrong.
I got inside the venue approximately 20 minutes before show time. As expected, it was very small. The guy I sat next to commented that it was like an oversize garage. That's about right, I thought.
The venue is primarily used as a movie theatre so, of course, there were rows of seats. My guess is that there were 25 rows at most. The farthest seat from the stage was maybe 20 to 25 yards away.
The venue was apparently once used as a place of worship. Eddie commented during both the 1st and 2nd shows that he had first been in the building when he was 10 years old and that, at that time, it had church pews in the center and beds on the side from front to back. Eddie further commented that, even back then, all he could think about was how cool it would be to see a band playing inside that building. At the end of the 2nd show, Eddie joked that he still had not seen a band playing inside the building.
The interior décor of the venue gave way its religious heritage. It was ornate and very Eastern looking. The walls above and to the immediate sides of the stage were a deep gold color. The same small mosaic tiles that surrounded the ticket booth outside decorated the ceilings in various places. The corners where the ends of the stage intersected with the side walls, on both sides, had small backstage entrances accessible through red curtains. Above these backstage entrances were tall gold decorative walls.
As noted, Eddie talked about the venue - and his history with the venue - several times during the shows. During one of these discussions in the 1st show, Eddie added that it was nice to come home but that it ultimately reminded him of why he'd left in the first place.
While it was somewhat disappointing to hear Eddie seemingly dissing San Diego, I kept the big picture clearly in mind. Whatever the reason - the venue, the family, whatever - the fact remained that he was in San Diego performing an incredible and intimate show. And I was one of 390 lucky beneficiaries.
The second clue that I was in for an incredibly great evening came in the 1st song of the 1st show. Eddie opened, surprisingly, with a fabulous version of "Throw Your Arms Around Me". Not only was the performance of the song right on but the sound in the venue was beautiful. Crystal clear. Even better, the crowd was perfectly silent. They remained so throughout the first three acoustic numbers.
The third clue that I was in for an incredibly great evening came with the 2nd song of the 1st show, "Trouble." Until Eddie started playing this song I still believed that there would be little variation from the TFC setlist. I figured that Eddie would substitute "Throw Your Arms Around Me" for "Last Kiss" and move onto the C Average songs previously played at TFC and at the Hollywood Palladium.
The opening notes of "Trouble," a song I was unfamiliar with, gave me the first inkling that a surprising and varied setlist was to come. And how beautiful and moving "Trouble" was!
A good version of "Last Kiss" followed and Ed then introduced the C Average band.
The fourth clue that I was in for a great evening came when C Average started in with "Watch Outside." It was a great version of the song that totally rocked!
The rocking trend continued with "Driven to Tears" and then with a cover of the Joe Jackson song, "Got the Time." By this point in the show, I was totally blown away. The trend of new and surprising tunes on the setlist continues. Eddie and the band are completely rocking. Eddie was blasting away on the guitar like I've never seen. His singing was intense. The band was more than keeping up with him. It was fucking unbelievable!
I'm ashamed to say that at about this point in time it occurred to me, for the first time, that Eddie's abilities on the guitar are far greater than I ever imagined. With Pearl Jam he rarely if ever needs to carry a song, let alone a show, with his guitar playing. It is easy to assume, therefore, that he is short on ability. On Saturday night Eddie proved, unequivocally, just how wrong that assumption is! Forgive me, Eddie! I will never assume again!
Of course, one thing I'm neglecting to mention is that in between many if not most songs Eddie is talking light-heartedly with the crowd. There was so much chatter I can't remember most of it. And I have additional difficulty trying to place the chatter that I do remember on a specific time line.
While I'm on the subject of chatter, and if I can jump ahead for just a moment, one topic and time line I do remember was the talk before the cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Bobby Jean," the 2nd song of the 2nd show. Eddie had some difficulty getting that song under way and commented that he felt the song better than he knew it. Eddie then added that sometimes it's better to just feel things.
On that note, I must say that the evening felt like a one-on-one with Eddie Vedder. The lucky 390 might as well have been in his living room. It was that intimate. Eddie could, and occasionally did, hear anyone in the venue who raised their voice only slightly.
There was other chatter that contributed to the intimate feeling. Before the end of the 1st show, for example, Eddie summoned an employee of the music store next door to La Paloma onstage and asked him to go into the store between shows and fetch an acoustic guitar. Apparently Eddie met the man in the store earlier in the day. Unfortunately, the man responded that he didn't have the store keys.
Eddie then continued his efforts to solicit an acoustic guitar from an audience member. Another guy volunteered that he could get one. He was invited onstage. As the guy walked across the stage he raised his arms preparing to hug Eddie. Eddie stepped back and held out his hand instead.
The guy persisted, and grabbed Eddie and hugged him. The guy then got on the microphone and said that he should at least be able to get a hug seeing as how he offered Eddie a guitar. Eddie eventually relinquished and hugged the guy back. As he did so, however, Eddie turned the dude so that his backside was facing the audience. For show, Eddie then grabbed the guy's butt. It was very funny.
Anyway, getting off of the tangent and back to the setlist, the next highlight in the 1st show after "Got the Time" was, in my opinion, "Corduroy." In between, of course, was "Running Out of Time," "Diamonds in the Rough," and "Love -> Building on Fire."
The version of "Corduroy" was so punky and transformed that it was barely recognizable. Still it ROCKED. And it was only improved upon during the 2nd show. The pinnacle of Eddie's incredible guitar playing may well have occurred during the 2nd version of "Corduroy." I specifically remember watching the guitar solo at the end of this song in total awe.
"Naked Eye" came next. What can I say? Truly an incredible version of a great Who song. If I could have a recording of just one song from last night's shows, I would choose "Naked Eye."
"I Am A Patriot," "Soldier of Love" and "I Can't Explain" followed. The final highlight of the show, however, was the final song, a cover of "That Feeling" by Tom Waits. Again a song I was not familiar with, the melodic song was impressive and moving.
The "Long Road" acoustic solo which started off the 2nd show was another truly incredible version of a truly great song. And it continued the marvelous evening trend of surprising new songs. "Bobby Jean" was equally marvelous. I never thought I would see Eddie Vedder do a Bruce Springsteen cover!
I could go on, I suppose, but you get the idea. A magical, one-in-a-million night for any Pearl Jam fan.
On that note, I have a couple of thank you's. Thank you to the phantom individual, who shall remain nameless, who called me with the tip of the century.
Thank you to Ben, truly the "source of all happiness." After the Friday night show in L.A., Ben had the sense to ask if any other shows were planned. The surprising response was, of course, that there were two shows in Encinitas the following night. Ben not only had the sense to ask, he then had the kindness to quietly pass the word amongst Pearl Jam fans, which word eventually made its way to me.
And, finally, if you're out there, thank you, Mr. Vedder, for sharing your endless musical talents with the world and, more importantly, for giving this San Diegan a night that will always be remembered.