One of the most awaited one-man-and-his-guitar tours landed in California on Saturday, April 5, when Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder touched down in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and pleased the raucous crowd with an energetic, soulful, and simplistically innovative two hours of music. The singer’s deep, throaty voice is one of the modern generation’s most distinctive, his guitar handling never fails to wow, and his poetic songwriting skills seem to have only strengthened with age, as evidenced by his Grammy-nominated soundtrack for Into the Wild.
But before Vedder came opener Liam Finn, a drum-smashing and guitar-playing Kiwi in his early 20s who uses looping pedals to craft a full band sound, even though it’s just him and voluptuous vocalist/autoharpist Eliza Jane Barnes on stage. Promoting his solo debut album I’ll Be Lightning, Finn broke a massive sweat with his crazed drumming, wrecking one of his new snares during one of his first songs. (Luckily, a man in a lab coat came from off-stage and quickly fixed the drum.) And his guitar playing wasn’t any less enthusiastic. His songs swept from slower ballads to hard rocking to ethereal, seemingly Maori-inspired flights of sound, an excellent, mouth-wetting appetizer for the evening’s main course.
Eddie Vedder hit the stage a little completely alone right before 9 p.m., eliciting a loud and inspired response from the sold-out crowd of about 2,000 fans – people were jumping in their seats, standing on chairs, yelling “Eddie! Eddie! We love you Eddie!”, and engaging in the sort of over-the-top activity reserved for rock stars of the highest order. He jumped right in, playing three songs before even addressing the crowd. When Vedder finally did converse, the lifelong surfer expressed gratitude for being in Santa Cruz, especially because it was the place that wetsuits were invented. He compared coming from Vancouver – the site of the tour’s first two shows – to Santa Cruz as much like the sensation of “pissing in a wetsuit,” a nod to the considerably warmer climes of the Golden State.
Although it was truly just Eddie and his considerable quiver of guitars – there were at least eight of them, including a mandolin and two ukuleles (one electric, one acoustic) – the stage was quite a scene from about 30 rows back. The backdrop appeared to be depicting a warehouse full of boxes or, perhaps, the discarded frames from an art studio sitting outside. There was what appeared to be a reel-to-reel film projector (that turned out later to play audio), an unturned carton of Corona, an odd winged creature hanging out on a rear speaker, and that kind of homey, creative sense usually found in the basement or garage studios of musicians’ homes. And then there was the sound tech in a lab coat, coming out between every song to replace Vedder’s axes.
Song-wise, Vedder played many of the Into the Wild cuts, including the Golden Globe-winning “Guaranteed.” The newer stuff was peppered with bits of the older stuff, including the always loved cover of The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” He interspersed his songs with stories from the short tour, about failed omelet ordering in Vancouver, and even offered to answer the call of one onlooker whose cell phone kept ringing. That person, for some reason, passed on the offer.
After the show’s first ending, the crowd raised a rather organized encore, yelling “Ed-die” clapping in unison. He returned to a new backdrop, this one a painting of an oversized tent, like the type you’d gather under on an African safari. Liam Finn joined him for one song, and then Vedder did two “sing-alongs.” The first was a Pearl Jam hit, and the second was “No More,” an anti-Iraq war song that he recorded as part of the soundtrack for Phil Donahue‘s documentary Body of War, about a wounded Iraq vet named Tomas Young. The crowd yelled “No more!” altogether, a political statement that was likely more supported in peace-loving Santa Cruz than in any other American municipality.
Suddenly, the lab coated man gave Eddie his own coat, and the singer proceeded to conduct an “experiment.” Leaning over while sitting, he began signing resonant, powerful vocals, and looping them. The sound grew into a tidal wave of harmonic noise, and given that Vedder wears a shaggy mop and was wearing a monkly white robe, it wasn’t hard to imagine that this heavenly chorus would have played the soundtrack to Jesus Christ moving the stone away from his cave after being crucified. The curtains slowly came to a close, and many thought the show was over.
But after a few more minutes of carousing, Vedder returned to the stage, this time with an angelic backdrop of sea and clouded blue sky. Explaining that he’d skipped the surf to work on another experiment, he unleashed a song written especially for Santa Cruz. The crowd, obviously, got into it, cheering resoundingly when Vedder sung about trading the soggy Northwest for the sunny shores here. Soon he was joined by Liam Finn and EJ Barnes to close the show with a rendition of “Hard Sun,” a song originally by Indio off the Into the Wild soundtrack. With that, the mad scientist songwriter took a fitting bow, and the Santa Cruz crowd slipped into the night.
Although Eddie Vedder proved an excellent show solo, word on the Santa Barbara streets is that when he comes to play this Thursday, April 11, he might have some friends in tow, including one named Jack, as everyone gets prepared for the annual Kokua Festival in Hawaii. If you’ve got tickets, consider yourself lucky. If not, consider finding a scalper this Thursday.