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Valentine's Day in Sydney
Entertainment Centre, Sydney, Australia
14 February 2003

There is nothing like a Sydney traffic jam and two hours sleep the previous night to try your patience on the way to a Pearl Jam concert, but all that is forgotten as soon as we arrive at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in Darling Harbour. I make my way through the crowds, browsing the official and unofficial merchandise, with my live-PJ virgins, Jase and Jules, as companions. Its been almost five years since my last and only encounter with them in Wellington, and the prospect of seeing them again has had me salivating for at least half of that time. I questioned both J's earlier if there is a band they are fanatical about, where they would know 95% of the lyrics of their studio catalogue; both replied in the negative. Such a complete knowledge and appreciation of any band would give their live show a trancy surrealism. The excitement is welling up inside, the bursting of the dam is just a matter of time.

There are moments of curiosity out front with others walking around trying to buy tickets. Jase admits that he would sell his ticket for $300 if the opportunity arose. I am not sure I have spoken to him since, but have since become much more perceptive in the art of signing. We walk in trying to decide what merchandise to purchase as a souvenir of what will, no doubt, be a memorable show.

And then ... I hear it. The J's, not being die-hard fans, are not aware that Eddie sometimes loosens the crowd up by performing short solos before the opening acts. Although not deafeningly loud from where we are, the sound is unmistakable, Eddie singing the Beatles, You've Got to Hide Your Love Away. I bolt for the entrances, blindly going to the closest doors, not realising they all have seat numbers associated with them. Eventually inside, we find our seats in time to enjoy the last moments of the song, enough to tease the taste buds. The anticipation is gripping now, surmounting the disappointment of missing the complete Ed-solo show (he played Patriot, by Steve Van Zandt, prior to the Beatles cover).

It's often agonising to watch opening bands whilst waiting for your heroes, but having seen Betchadupa twice before and having found their live performance thoroughly enjoyable, this is not a burden for me. They race through their set, and I tell J I am waiting for the crunchin' riffs of Supa Day. He then leaves to consume beer, which cannot be brought inside, just before the band rip into the aforementioned song. With insufficient time to be satisfied, Liam says something along the lines of being really farkin lucky, before playing the opening notes of History Never Repeats as Ed strolls out onto the stage. Even though Ed misses a few words at the start of the second verse, I am so hyped that my shouting and applauding is getting looks from people like I have some kind of visible, abnormal feature growing on my face. The adrenaline is so intense I cannot bring myself to race outside and grab the J's. They finish with Drop D, and Liam is jumping off the drum kit and flailing about madly, with intoxicating energy. A pity the house isn't fuller. I rush outside to share my news, but am not met with mirrored enthusiasm, but rather with regretful frowns. And I can't help but be so excited as to rub it in a little.

Having seen Johnny Marr a few years ago, I was also eager to hear him. But his set, whilst solid, was a bit disappointing, lacking the punch that Betchadupa exhibited, particularly the version of Down on the Corner. And the lights come back on, revealing numerous empty seats in all parts of the venue. This is worrying. Pearl Jam cannot play to a half full venue in Sydney, can they? The chanting and efforts of Mexican Waves are not unified, and time drifts on as the lack of sleep begins to take hold.

And then the lights go out. And the place becomes alive. As the band make their way across the stage, I break out with goose bumps and my eyes feel as if they will explode. Lack of sleep, what lack of sleep? Although I had prayed for Long Road, Oceans, or Release to open, I can't find the negativity to be disappointed as Matt Cameron begins the opening rhythms to Can't Keep. And Ed's vocals are perfect, fronting the layers of guitar - "I won't live forever, you can't keep me here." McCready then gives us the opening riff of Save You, and the band reacts to a more energetic and emotional outlet. "Please help me to help you ..... HELP YOURSELF," and I am wishing they hadn't have played this so soon, so that my vocal chords could be spared. The band then launches into Hail Hail followed quickly by Corduroy, to which the crowd roars its approval. The opening riff to Corduroy has me up standing before I can look at Jase and see the "Fuck Yes!" in his eyes. McCready accepts this first opportunity to let loose, allowing the guitar to wail and sing all its own. The crowd is given no rest as Matt's skin pounding exploits announce the arrival of Grievance. And it rocks, all the way down to the last line, "I will feel .. alive ... as long as I am free!"

Before I collapse in the stinking, sweating mess that has already accumulated, Ed finally addresses the crowd, letting us know that they are being relayed on the radio across Australia, ".. just warn you because you're not allowed to say shit, piss or fuck on the radio ... in context like 'shit I thought my seats were gonna be better, piss, as in I gotta take one, or fuck this absurd idea of going to war'." He continues by thanking the partners of the band on Valentine's Day, for keeping them "balanced on the tight wire." They then play Ghost and Cropduster from the most recent album, both polished and lively although somewhat slowing the momentum being relatively unknown to the crowd.

Ed speaks. "Haven't played this one in awhile, it's called Dissident." And the "Fuck Yes" is alive and kicking again in Jase's eyes and we are both upstanding and howling lyrics at the stage. For something not regularly in the setlist, the band is really on, with no signs of rust or lack of cohesion. Julia is then grabbed from both sides as the opening riff to Given To Fly is played, bringing much of the Entertainment Centre to its feet. Such a powerful anthem, "stabbed by faceless men, well fark 'em, he still stands ..." If nothing else occurs this night, Julia would be satisfied. But there is no time to collect oneself as the drums crash into Even Flow. There is no collective jump leading into the solo, but McCready makes up for it with some extended moments of guitar energy. If nothing else occurs this night, Jase would be satisfied.

During the Foofighters set in Auckland's Big Day Out, Elliott had called me as a gesture of "Hey I am here and you're not!", myself being a big fan of the Foos. So Jase calls E during Even Flow, holds the phone out for two minutes, and triumphantly says "Even Flow Bitch!" before hanging up. Even Pearl Jam can be incorporated into a personal vendetta.

Ed introduces the band members before playing I Am Mine, again receiving approving cheers from the masses, followed by Love Boat Captain. This is such a challenging song encompassing all sides of the spectrum, with the despair of "... first comes love and then comes pain.." coupled with the aspiring "... once you hold the hand of love, its all surmountable..." Inspired by the tragedy that was Roskilde, Ed changes the lyrics from "... lost nine friends we'll never know .." to "... lost nine friends we'll get to know, more and more each day," reflecting the accepting responses of some of the victim's families. The guitar solo period is a few bars beyond the studio version, allowing Mike to rip into an extended lead. Ed accidentally sings the opening lyrics in the closing solo, but it matters not as the chilling guitar intro of Wishlist echoes around the stadium, the crowd response drowning out the shrieks of delight from Jules. Subtle lyrical differences brings a smile to my face, "I wish I was fortunate as you," as does the lighting show and the resulting mirrorball slowly revolving and spreading small beams of light around the venue. A long outro and Ed does not finish the song on his own and with impromptu lyrics, which had become the usual. Yet if nothing else occurs this night, Julia would be satisfied.

Ed grabs an acoustic guitar before introducing Thumbing My Way as a song about "... hitchhiking your way through a broken heart." And the sheer beauty of the song immediately saddens me, its hope and hopelessness. For the only time in the night I am not bouncing on the edge of the seat, nor am I upstanding, nor jumping, nor swaying. I sink into the seat, and momentarily close my eyes and try to absorb everything the song offers. The keyboards in the background, the soft vocals, the acoustic guitar. There is something rare about this song ... and this live version does it more than justice.

Ed then sends the crowd into a frenzy with the opening notes of Better Man. By the time the first verse is through, Ed has faded and is simply playing, head back, willing the crowd to do the singing. And the crowd responds, with a volume that reflects familiarity and appreciation of the song, the moment. The band joins and cranks through the rest of the song, with Ed singing "I need you" repeatedly in place of a tag. We then get 53 seconds of punk-rock in the form of Lukin. I wait in anticipation for the band to flow straight into Not For You, but instead, the band collect themselves before giving us Insignificance. It still has the 'black-out', but the bridge is different with a guitar replacing the melody of the lyrics, before a rocking outro. A few slow notes collect themselves into the recognisable intro to Rearviewmirror, another crowd pleaser. The middle of the song brings darkness to the stage, before the lights slowly reveal the emerging band members. The strobe light accompanies the madness towards the song's conclusion, with McCready jumping and waving chaotically, much to the delight of the crowd.

And they make us wait over five minutes before the first encore ... such teasers. But we can see that the empty seats we saw before Pearl Jam came out are all full. And then the stage reddens as the chords to Bushleaguer ring out. In a silver jacket and a George Bush mask, Eddie dances around sarcastically, finger pointing and prancing across the stage before setting the mask on the microphone stand. And its farkin hilarious, and such a direct attack. The live version has Ed singing the high notes in the chorus, and is extremely enjoyable. Stone breaks into the acoustic intro to Daughter, which has the War (Edwin Starr) tag, as the crowd copies Ed - "War, what is it good for, absolutely nothing!" Mike teases us with the riff from WMA during an extended outro before the song ends ... and Jase (an avid fan of Vs.) is seething with contempt and disgust, yet still grinning.

Stone keeps the acoustic and leads into Black, the cheers from the crowd escalating even more. And out come the lighters, and they FILL the stadium as I am treated to the first Pearl Jam song to ever enchant me, and one they didn't play in Wellington five years ago. When Eddie hits and holds that note, "turned my world to black, tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll beeeeeeee," the emotion sweeps over me like a wave, and I am inspired by a band that I thought would struggle to continue inspiring me. And its followed by a mesmerising McCready lead, during which I turn to Jase and shout something befitting McCready's brilliance. And barely but recognisably audible, the crowd sings the backing part before it is drowned out by cheers and screams of appreciation. Do The Evolution keeps the crowd on their feet. It features a couple of verse swaps and humorous lyrical changes like "I am the first man to play my penis!"

And then the unexpected happens. Ed speaks, "Ah, we just got an idea here, we'll try something" and Stone lays into the openings of Alive. Gasps of disbelief, sweaty palms high five, the crowd roars incomparably, and everyone rises to their feet. As it was next on the setlist before the Roskilde incident became apparent, it was doubted whether this song, which defines Pearl Jam as much as any other, would ever make the setlist again. With its anthem-like qualities, autobiographical and thought provoking lyrics, and lead guitar outro; if we remember moments and not days, then this was truly an unforgettable moment. The soaring feeling that accompanied the opening guitar riff ... indescribable.

And after that, the few minutes they make us wait for the next encore is almost necessary, for I fear detriment due to over-excitement. And some people are leaving!! My eyes must be deceiving me, who could possibly leave after what just occurred. When Ed eventually comes out, he is smoking onstage ... but somehow I find everything he does as completely acceptable. He proceeds to speak of the upcoming peace marches and how 'W' and his administration doesn't represent the band or their associates. He then shows us the surfboard given to him by Mark Richards and says to get a "good look at it, coz if you see this thing coming at you tomorrow, its my day off and I wanna get a farkin wave, and I ain't stopping for anybody. Actually ... if its crowded (and) anybody gives me a wave I'll give them back stage passes for the rest of the tour." He continues by talking about the inspiration he finds in Pete Townshend and the misrepresentation surrounding him, leading into The Kids Are Alright (the Who).

Joined by the rest of the band, the stadium is illuminated with the houselights as they lead into Yellow Ledbetter. A fitting closer, with the crowd clapping and waving throughout. Mike, so full of enthusiasm and whose leads have been a highlight all evening, closes the show with one last display.

And we depart ... the dam having been exhaustively emptied and we now begin the long process of coming down from the buzz of the show. I think I am still 'recovering', with which I have no qualms about. The setlist may have been influenced by the radio broadcast, but my complaints are minimal and not worth mentioning. The setlist was great, with the expected, and the delightfully unexpected. Jules mentions her doubt as to whether she will ever again witness a show during which every moment would be enjoyable. Jase never understood the appeal of going to see a band more than once during their tour. So afterwards, I asked him if the performance left him with a desire to go to Adelaide and hear them again in a few nights. He replies "Fuck Yes!", or something to that effect.

© 2003 Derek Cheng