In the list of adjectives used to describe Pearl Jam ‘pugnacious’ wouldn’t be near the top. It probably wouldn’t be on the list. Maybe it should. Particularly the ‘pugnacious’ that is defined as “having the appearance of a willing fighter”.
Because in the case of one group of people Pearl Jam time and time again has shown a willingness to lace up the gloves and come out swinging. Those people are the band’s fans and that willingness to fight (figuratively speaking) was on display again Friday night and Saturday morning in Chicago.
Historically speaking the band has not backed down from big challenges. They’ve stepped into the ring with Ticketmaster, record company executives, MTV, and most often conventional wisdom. For Pearl Jam all of these Question Authority moments came back to the same basic theory: let’s do what we think is best for our fans.
Friday night the band faced the toughest authority figure in their 22 year career. Mother Nature.
Their concert at Wrigley Field had been months in the planning. Eager fans gobbled up all the tickets (40,000 or so) in an all time Wrigley record of 20 minutes. You’d have thought the Cubs finally made the World Series.
Fans converged on the Windy City from points far and near. One conversation might happen with someone from Tokyo, the next with someone from Joliet, then Switzerland. I met a couple from Bonney Lake. I met another from Lubbock, Texas.
I was in the area for a week leading up to the show. (I was working for Pearl Jam Radio so factor that into this commentary if you’d like.) The weather was miserably hot but no rain. Thursday evening a crowd of several hundred Pearl Jam fan club members enjoyed a bar-b-que at the Ivy League Baseball Club, one of the roof top bars on Sheffield Avenue directly across the street from the Friendly Confines. They ate, drank, and watched the sunset as the band sound checked.
I turned to my wife as we listened to the band run through “Off He Goes” and said that I wished a thunderstorm would hit town tonight. As a child of the Midwest I knew it was only a matter of time before all that energy in the sky was released and forecasters had been unanimous in their predictions: expect a severe thunderstorm sometime early Friday evening.
In the words of noted American philosopher Astro Jetson—“ruh roh.”
By the time the show started Friday night huge billowy clouds, white on top and black on the bottom, were building to the west of the stadium. About 45 minutes in Ed Vedder announced that a storm was coming. The plan was to play one more song, evacuate the 1000s of fans on the field and in lower level seats that had no protection, wait the storm out, then continue the concert.
As fans funneled into the old ballpark’s narrow concourses it became apparent cooperation would be necessary. The hall way under the stands was simply too narrow to accommodate everyone who needed shelter. Space was at a premium and it became almost impossible to move your arm or leg more than a foot without bumping into someone. Quoting my better half, if there was such a thing as a Stink-o-meter it would have registered off the charts.
Somehow, someway, everyone stayed calm. Concession stands remained open although the lines were obviously ridiculous. My sister in law Wendy is being re-written into a higher share of our will after offering to stand in line to get us water.
“Don’t stop at water,” was my wise ass advice. 30 minutes later she returned with 4 waters. And 2 beers.
While fans and stadium workers did their best to stay calm (and badger their relatives for beer) the band, the promoter, the stadium, and the city of Chicago were in negotiations about how best to proceed. It had been hoped that the delay would be for about an hour but weather radar indicated not one, but two storms approaching. There seemed little chance that the show could be resumed before 11pm which is actually the curfew for concerts at the building. Playing after 11 results in a fine that is used (at least partially) to pay stadium workers overtime.
The band did what it always does. They put fans at the front of the discussion. Cancelling the show wasn’t an option since the building was booked for a different concert Saturday night. A deal was finally struck that allowed the band to play (at a cost) until the unthinkable hour of 2am. At 10:49 central time the following message appeared on the band’s twitter account:
“We have been advised to wait until a second weather cell passes. We intend to provide you with a full show tonight.”
A little under an hour later the show resumed with a sensational version of “Someday We’ll Go All the Way”, the Cubs anthem Vedder wrote years ago at the urging of Cubs legend Ernie Banks who was introduced and joined Vedder on stage to sing a verse of the song.
From there, just before midnight, the band launched into the appropriately titled “All Night” which includes the lyric “scream and wail, see who cares.”
I thought of that lyric 25 songs later when Stone Gossard hit the opening riff to the show closer “Rockin’ in the Free World.” I looked at my watch. It was 1:58 on Saturday morning. By now I had moved from my seats to a vantage point behind the stage where Pearl Jam Radio was set up to do a post concert show that would eventually start at 2:15am. From my view I could see the stadium when the house lights came up. Still packed with fans who had endured a hell of a lot just to get to this moment.
The fans held up their end of the bargain not just by staying until the end but by, for the most part, staying calm during the maddening delay. Kudos to the Wrigley workers as well. They got much more than they bargained for on this night but also remained calm and as helpful as possible under very difficult circumstances.
Pearl Jam had promised a full show and then delivered. Two sets and 32 songs over a period of just under six hours. There might have been easier ways out of the mess Mother Nature threw at them. But in the end they did what they always do. They asked themselves what was best for the fans and then they made it happen.