About six songs into Eddie Vedder’s solo acoustic set at New York’s Beacon Theater last night, he stopped for a moment and asked for the house lights to be turned on. “It’s nice to play these old-timey songs in an old, ornate building,” he said, as he gazed around the theater. “Back in the day I would have climbed the shit out of this place.”
On Pearl Jam’s earliest tours, Vedder did indeed climb the shit out of every place they played, often reaching absurd heights before falling into the crowd with seemingly little concern for his safety. Twenty years later, he’s mellowed considerably – as is evidenced by his new solo album Ukulele Songs and the supporting tour. Some rock icons would have difficulty bringing their audience along on such a radical departure from their best known work, but Pearl Jam’s fiercely loyal followers are game for just about anything – even if they reserved their largest cheers for Pearl Jam classics.
Vedder opened the show with six consecutive tracks from Ukulele Songs, though “Can’t Keep” is an acoustic re-working of a rather obscure song from Pearl Jam’s 2002 Riot Act. Like the best songs from his heroes Neil Young and Pete Townshend, the tune shines even when stripped down to its barest form.
With the new songs almost entirely out of the way for the night, Vedder strapped on an electric guitar and began reminiscing about seeing Bruce Springsteen in Chicago around 1978, and what a huge impact the show had on him – especially the sight of Clarence Clemons in his gleaming white suit. In tribute to the late E Street Band saxophonist, Vedder played a touching rendition of “Long Road” from his 1995 EP Merkin Ball.
After playing a crowd-pleasing “Better Man” and a cover of James Taylor’s “Millworker” – dedicated to the female Wal-Mart employees whose gender discrimination lawsuit was just dealt a crushing blow by the U.S. Supreme Court – Vedder dipped deep into the soundtrack to Into The Wild. Opening act Glen Hansard came onstage to harmonize on “Long Nights,” while “Rise” got much of their crowd out of their seats and signing along.
A four-piece string section joined Vedder for “Just Breathe” and “The End” from Pearl Jam’s 2009 disc Backspacer before he ended the set with the mournful, layered harmonies of “Arc” – yet another song from Riot Act. It’s hard to think of a more obscure Pearl Jam song – or a more difficult one to perform live – but by taping vocals and looping them, he pulled it off with ease. It did, however, drive the Olsen twins (or at least one of them) out of their seats and to race to the exits with incredible speed.
Crowded House frontman Neil Finn joined Vedder for encores of “Throw Your Arms Around Me” and the Split Enz 1980 classic “I Got You.” Vedder admitted they didn’t rehearse, and Finn had to repeatedly call out the chord changes. “We play that song different ways,” Vedder said afterwards. “But he wrote it, so he’s right.” He followed it up with “Lukin” and “Porch,” which had the Pearl Jam superfans squealing with delight.
The show could have easily ended there, but Vedder brought both Finn and Hansard back onstage for a rollicking run-through of “Hard Sun” played against the backdrop of the ocean. It was the most joyful moment of the night, which Eddie capped off with a ukulele rendition of the 1930s chestnut “Dream A Little Dream.” It was quiet, understated and gorgeous – and a perfect way to end the evening.