With exams, and as a result my degree, finally coming to an end, I thought I'd tick two of my favourite acts ever off my gigging bucket list: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and Pearl Jam. I'll get to Bruce later, for now let's talk Pearl Jam.
The band were only due to play one date at the MEN, making a passing visit to the area before heading to the Isle of Wight Festival the following weekend, but tickets were going fast and all standing places went in the presales (the bane of my life!), so they decided to stick around and play the next night too. I wound up at both (more on that in a bit) and was in the seats at the back both nights - the second night's seats were much better, you were practically at eye-level with the stage.
Night 1 - June 20th
This set was probably more heavy on the "hits" than the following nights with seven songs coming from their bazillion selling debut "Ten", but it still had it's quirks.
For instance, the band opened with "Release", a move which I always though was a brave one being one of their slower numbers. But after watching Cameron Crowe's documentary on the band, "PJ20" it's a choice that makes a lot more sense to me than it used to: essentially it's a statement of intent from the band that tonight they are open and at our will.
Certainly lead singer Eddie Vedder reflected that when addressing the audience. "How are you?", he asks, "It's a weird question to ask collectively, but we mean it individually, how is everyone tonight?".
While the closing strains of "Release" still ring around the arena, Ed tosses his jacket to the floor and you know business is about to pick up. This leads to an opening flurry that is just home run after home run: "Do The Evolution", "Corduroy", "The Fixer" and "Given To Fly" are all riotous singalongs.
Things get more earnest with "...Small Town" (my favourite ballad they've ever done) and "Pilate" as Ed reflects on the band's history in Manchester: "We first played here in July 1991, we played ten songs, that was all we knew... we know a lot more now!"
At various points in the night I'm also left in complete awe of lead guitarist Mike McCready, who's riffs completely swallow up the arena, particularly on "Even Flow" and "Immortality".
In a cool moment, Ed held the back of his guitar up to one of the overhead spotlights to shine some light on the audience, although choosing to do this during "1/2 Full", a cut from probably their least popular album "Riot Act", I couldn't help but think he was just checking to see who'd gone for a piss break.
The crowd really start to get boisterous after "Insignificance" though, and are still raucous by the time "Why Go" finishes the main set.
We're then treated to two encores, the first of which sees Eddie stroll out, bottle of wine in hand ("I've been trying to get in shape for this tour, they say a bottle of red wine a day keeps the doctor at bay... Oh shit, it's just a glass? Fuck that!") for the beautiful "Just Breathe", which is followed by "Black".
I was really thrilled to hear the latter. Never having had a really bad break up myself I didn't know why that song struck such a chord with me until I read the "PJ20" book, and Ed had this to say about the inspiration behind the song:
"I've heard it said that you can't really have a true love unless it was a love unrequited. It's a harsh one, because then your truest one is the one you can't have forever."
Seeing that hit me like a tonne of bricks.
The second encore similarly starts off gentle with "Betterman" (the band's masterpiece in my book) before sending us home in thrilling style with their cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World". And with that I was sent home a very happy bunny indeed.
Night 2 - June 21st
...except that on the way home I couldn't help but thinking about the songs they DIDN'T play and knowing the band's reputation for changing set lists each time they play (especially for residencies at one venue) I just knew I had to go see them the next night too. Luckily the arena box office still had one for me the afternoon of the gig.
Boy was I glad I went to this show too! The moment the band came out to "Go" (the opener of my favourite album of theirs, "Vs.") I knew I would be vindicated in my decision. By my count only four songs were kept from the previous night.
As I expected this set contained a tad more fad service than the first night. I was particularly please to hear "No Code" tracks "Hail Hail", "Lukin", "Present Tense" and "Off He Goes". Other welcome additions to the set were "Down" (my favourite of their B-sides), "Amongst The Waves" and "Save You" (my favourite songs from their respective albums).
Eddie didn't have quite so much "banter" for us this time, but early in the set remarked that the audience already had more energy "than all those bankers and accountants we got last night" which was pretty funny.
We also got a first from the band: in honour of all of Manchester's record firsts (home of the first computer, being the place where they first split the atom and several more which Ed read off a sheet of paper he had!) the band played rarity "Hitchhiker" for the first time ever.
I think looking at the two set lists now, it seems like the first night was the better night, but I remember feeling that the second night was the better of the two after I came out of the venue. So I guess I'm split over which set I preferred. Nevertheless they were both magnificent gigs and I'm really grateful I was able to go to both.
Safe to say, the bar had been set very high indeed for Bruce the next night. But, as I'll discuss in my next blog, boy did he live up to them!
See you soon.