Pearl Jam | Madison Square Garden, New York 6/25/08

Just what is it about Madison Square Garden that makes it so special? I heard someone pose this question the other day, and it got me thinking. After all, it is just a basketball stadium (and ice rink); there are 29 other NBA stadiums in the country, and countless college stadiums.

But it’s more than just a basketball court. Madison Square Garden has history, and lots of it. Championships have been won and lost, political conventions have been played out and concerts, countless historic concerts have happened. So I think that’s what really separates MSG from the rest. There on that stage the Rolling Stones recorded Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out, George Harrison staged the Concert for Bangladesh, Led Zeppelin played three sold-out shows which made up The Song Remains the Same, Phish headlined New Year’s Eve 1995, and then 1997, 1998 and 2002. U2 has played the Garden 17 times, The Grateful Dead 52 times, and Elton John 60 times. He’s even got his name hung in the rafters next to Mark Messier.

For bands that have a sense of history and a reverence for live music’s past, Madison Square Garden is hallowed ground, a stage to prove yourself, and if you really have the chops, add your name to the pantheon of amazing performances. For bands like this MSG is a star on the calendar, a date to gear up for. Pearl Jam has already entered that pantheon, so their first performances at the Garden in five years were definitely highly anticipated.

The first time I saw Pearl Jam at the garden were those shows five years ago. Back to back gigs that set the bar about as high as it could be set. On the first night, with rarities like “Breath,” “Crown of Thorns” and a guest appearance by Ben Harper, the band reached heights that I’m still hoping to see again. Their show on Wednesday didn’t quite make it there, but anytime you get to see a band with such a command of its catalog and its audience it is still a site to see.

If you’ve ever been to a Pearl Jam show you know about the audience participation. The fans are crazy, for better and worse, and the sing along started immediately when Pearl Jam hit the stage and opened up with “Release.” The participation didn’t end there. PJ played songs from spanning their catalog (except 2000’s Binaural) but loaded up on five songs each off Ten and Vs. The crowd went wild for “Garden,” and of course sang the entire first verse of “Betterman.”

At this stage in my Pearl Jam fanship, it’s a lot about the rarities they play, the stuff I’ve never seen before. The setlist for the show on Tuesday seemed a little stronger to me, but that’s not to say Wednesday didn’t have its moments. The aforementioned “Garden” was excellent; they played two tracks off No Code, “I’m Open” and “Who You Are” that I’d never seen before. On a number of songs three local singers added back up vocals. Honestly I thought the singers were a bit camp, but it allowed the band to play some new songs including “All Night,” off the Lost Dogs compilation and a great version of “W.M.A.”

The highlight of the night though had to be Ace Frehley. Yes, that’s the Ace Frehley of Kiss. He came out, sans Kiss makeup, during the second encore for an excellent cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond.” Guitarist Mike McCready sang the opening verse and drummer Matt Cameron sang the rest in a pretty awesome ’80’s hair-metal howl.

Still, the real fun of seeing a Pearl Jam show is witnessing a band so good at what they do. Eddie Vedder has mastered the art of front man. McCready can hardly contain his energy, which usually results in him running around in circles. Cameron is solid as a rock behind the drum kit. And Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament are the backbone of the band. They’ve been playing together for seemingly forever (beyond the 18 or so years of Pearl Jam, back to Seattle band Mother Love Bone). Some of my favorite moments at PJ shows are on songs like Rearview Mirror or Evenflow, after a McCready solo, Gossard and Ament slowly bring the band back into a unified whole, working their way back into the song, and then we’re back with Vedder behind the microphone and thousands of fans singing their hearts out.

Set List:
Set 1: Release, World Wide Suicide, Severed Hand, Corduroy, All Night, Cropduster, Garden, Marker In The Sand, I’m Open, Wishlist, State Of Love And Trust, Even Flow, Who You Are, Rats, Given To Fly, Do The Evolution, Go

Encore 1: Inside Job, W.M.A., Lukin, I Believe In Miracles, Better Man(Save it for Later), Rearviewmirror

Encore 2: No More, Last Kiss, Why Go, Black Diamond, Alive, Yellow Ledbetter