Seven years ago, by sheer luck, I stumbled upon a performance by Neil Finn & Friends at an intimate theater in Auckland and took a $17 gamble to find out who Finn’s “friends” might be. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder was among them. Finn’s teenaged son Liam, reveling in the coolness of Dad’s friends, played with his then-band, Betchadupa, as well. Last Thursday, Liam Finn, accompanied by Australian songstress E-J Barnes, opened Vedder’s S.B. show with his innovative shtick, singing and using a looping device to layer his guitar and drums.
Eschewing an onstage entrance, Vedder appeared on the balcony of the stage-left faux villa, tied a rope to one of the posts, and gracefully slid to the ground, driving the audience into a lather before singing a note. The show, one of only six stops on his first-ever solo tour, sold out in 12 seconds flat. The alt-rock icon could have read a grocery list in his trademark gravel-rolled-in-honey baritone and the ardent crowd would have eagerly lapped it up, but fortunately for us, Vedder had more substantial offerings to share from his first solo album, Into the Wild‘s Oscar-nominated soundtrack, lesser-known selections from Pearl Jam’s catalog, and a slew of stellar covers.
Vedder mesmerized the crowd with his sonorous vibrato and flawless finger-picking on Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow,” Cat Stevens’s “Trouble,” and samplings from Into the Wild, including “Setting Forth,” “Rise,” and the hymn-like “Guaranteed.” Powerful covers of Dylan’s “Forever Young,” Hunters & Collectors’ “Throw Your Arms Around Me,” and James Taylor’s “Millworker” showcased his fierce strumming prowess. He dipped into other soundtrack work for the brooding “Dead Man,” written from the perspective of a death-row inmate, and invited the boisterous crowd to join him on the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” Pearl Jam numbers included “Around the Bend,” “I Am Mine,” “Lukin,” and a frenzied rendition of “Porch” that brought the crowd to their feet.
Between songs, Vedder related humorous, expletive-laced anecdotes, tailoring his banter to the location, as he’s done throughout the tour. He remarked on the beauty of the Arlington and recited an ode to UCSB that he had penned, exhibiting surprising insider knowledge of our college-town-by-the-sea. Addressing the S.B. natives in the crowd, he commented, “I don’t know how much you get out or how much traveling you do, but the rest of the world does not look like this.”
For the first encore, a backdrop of a Victorian safari tent, complete with steamer trunks and straw hats, replaced the warehouse-like backdrop of the main set. Vedder invited Finn to lend his sweet, genetically blessed vocals to the harmonies on the Jerry Hannan-penned “Society” (Vedder’s self-proclaimed personal favorite from Into the Wild). Ben Harper, who had been chilling in the audience, joined Vedder onstage for the Iraqi war protest song “No More” from the Body of War soundtrack.
Returning for a second encore, Vedder proclaimed, “If you had me as your best friend, you still wouldn’t have friends as talented as I’ve got,” welcoming Harper, Finn, and Barnes to join him on his cover of Indio’s “Hard Sun” before a new backdrop of blue sky and placid seascape.
We couldn’t believe our sheer luck.