Pearl Jam enjoyed a triumphant return to the stage in front of 35,000+ fans on saturday night at Sea.Hear.Now. in Asbury Park, playing their first show since 9/4/18 at Fenway Park in Boston, MA. Originally scheduled for 2021, this long-awaited festival set was originally supposed to be at the tail end of a six-month tour with dates spanning the United States and Europe. Instead, due to COVID, it broke a 1,110-day dry spell between live performances.

Conceived and executed by famed rock photographer, long-time friend, and frequent Pearl Jam collaborator Danny Clinch, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the “prince of Asbury Park” –Eddie Vedder’s loving moniker for Clinch– willed Sea.Hear.Now into existence four years ago just to provide a successful track record and platform for Saturday’s Pearl Jam set.

In March of 2020, Pearl Jam released Gigaton, their eleventh studio album and first since Lightning Bolt in 2013. Though Gigaton was originally slated for release in Dolby Atmos in nationwide movie theaters as well as a live album release party at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY, the pandemic wiped all those plans from the 2020 spring calendar in addition to the postponement of 17 planned US shows and an equal number in Europe later that summer. As luck (both bad and good) would have it for those in attendance Saturday, Sea.Hear.Now turned out to be the de facto Gigaton release party, Pearl Jam debuting six tracks from their most recent effort, a trio of which headed the setlist.

Taking the stage to thunderous applause and opening with “Dance of the Clairvoyants”, it became immediately evident that Pearl Jam had an album’s worth of new songs that they were eager to share with the most faithful and diehard fan base on the planet. Counting myself among those and admitting that I might have scripted a different opener for the first Pearl Jam show in three years, I am an open canvas that is always ready to receive the full intention of Pearl Jam’s art without the added layer of my unwarranted brushstrokes or input. Music moves me, not vice versa, and this highly energetic debut offering was a stroke of brilliance. Hearing Matt f*cking Cameron play live drum tracks that were originally conceived on electronic drums was nothing short of astounding, not to mention the mixed-up instrumentation that saw guitarist Stone Gossard play bass while bassist Jeff Ament added synth.

Pearl Jam — “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” — 9/18/21

[Video: Alex Neff]

The second consecutive debut track to open the show was “Quick Escape”, the full band now back on their regular instruments as Mike McCready’s solo was everything the Gigaton cut promised and more. “Seven O’Clock” rounded out the trio of show-opening debuts before Eddie Vedder settled in and waxed poetic about the state of the world these past few years, concluding with, “Safety first. We care about you so f*cking much, and we’re so happy to be here, but we’re also a little nervous because we haven’t played a show in three f*cking years.”

Pearl Jam — “Seven O’Clock” — 9/18/21

[Video: Diana Ellefson]

Everything has chains…absolutely nothing’s changed.

Never have these words felt more appropriate as the familiar notes of “Corduroy” rang out, the PJ faithful going as wild as dancing in soft sand could possibly allow. This being the first “Corduroy” since the last “Corduroy”, and clearly the most recognizable tune of the night thus far, this was the first of many times my notes read, “Does it get any better than this?” Eddie Vedder next introduced the first of the evening’s guests who it turns out wasn’t actually a guest at all but new touring member of the band Josh Klinghoffernée of the Red Hot Chili Peppers during John Frusciante’s absence from the band–called upon to provide guitar, vocal, and piano fills on several Gigaton tracks. “Present Tense” followed, lone guitar tracks accompanying Vedder’s vocals while Matt Cameron kept time before the full band joined along for the song’s powerful bridge.

“Never Destination” was next, the fourth unveiling from Gigaton and another track in which McCready’s incendiary guitar leads stole the spotlight before settling into a white-hot “Even Flow” that prompted Eddie Vedder to recognize Michael David McCready and his Fender Stratocaster by their full given names, the middle of which was previously unknown to the Pearl Jam frontman over the course of their thirty-year relationship until that very moment.

Pearl Jam — “Even Flow” — 9/18/21

[Video: javier alvizar]

As Vedder took time to recognize some of those lost over the last few years, he dedicated “Wishlist” to both Charlie Watts and Norm MacDonald. The song’s lyrics were altered to feature numerous shoutouts to New Jersey along with the first of several mentions of Bruce Springsteen before the song was interrupted while Eddie took a moment to check on a fan situation upfront. Satisfied that all was well, the song had a bumpy restart (no forgiveness necessary since being a good human requires no apology) before the song found its way again and ultimately detoured through the Rolling Stones “Waiting On A Friend”. “Superblood Wolfmoon” followed, another gnarly offering from Gigaton in which McCready continued to dominate on yet another supercharged debut track.

Now approaching the show’s halfway point, Vedder took a few moments to appreciate Danny Clinch, lovingly referring to his longtime friend as the aforementioned “Prince of Asbury Park” before publicly lauding him for conceiving the mammoth festival that was ostensibly just a ruse to bring Pearl Jam to Asbury Park in the first place. Then, for the second time in consecutive shows —albeit three-plus years since 9/4/2018—Mr. Clinch joined Pearl Jam on stage to play harmonica on a highly memorable version of “Red Mosquito”.

Pearl Jam w/ Danny Clinch — “Red Mosquito” — 9/18/21

[Video: jay dayrit]

Fans who noticed Jeff Ament take a seat to play upright bass or Stone Gossard grab his acoustic guitar likely heard the first chords of “Daughter” before it even began, delighting the 35,000+ with the 1993 standout that featured an extended “W.M.A.” tag and a Vs. double-dip. “Take The Long Way” would follow, the sixth of the album’s 12 tracks to debut on the evening but the first that really surprised with the power of its live performance. At the precise moment that Pearl Jam debuted exactly half of their newest album, Gigaton tracks had now accounted for half of the evening’s setlist in a double entendre of halves that I for one found mathematically interesting.

The longest title in the Pearl Jam catalog was the final offering from Vs. as “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” set the beach ablaze with its epic singalong … “I just want to scream, hello” … as it kicked off the greatest hits portion of the evening. “Given To Fly” and “State of Love and Trust” ensued, Vedder belting, “Nothin’, I’ll do this one myself” before ad-libbing, “never myself because I need help.” Especially as we still navigate a global pandemic that not only left 4.7 million and counting in its wake but also really shone a light on the importance of mental health, those added lyrics felt especially poignant.

Taking a breather to say, “I hope I can be Patti Smith when I grow up” before storytime in which a dismayed Vedder admonished the New Jersey cops who arrested Bruce Springsteen for DWI, “I mean if ever there were a time to make an exception,” Vedder then played the opening notes of “Better Man”. At this point, feet in the sand and arms around my loved ones, the full emotional weight of this long-awaited performance came to bear and it was game, set, and match.

A powerful cover of Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” was played for the first time since 2016’s Global Citizen Festival, neatly tying this segment together with the Pearl Jam frontman’s earlier comments and Smith’s performance earlier on Saturday on this very stretch of sand. A downright raucous and hauntingly relevant “Porch” closed the set proper, Vedder taking two steps up the stage left scaffolding before stopping to look out at the audience and wave, those first steps involuntarily conjuring momentary images of the stage dives of yesteryear.

Pearl Jam — “Porch” — 9/18/21

[Video: jay dayrit]

Rumors aplenty, some of which were even confirmed (!), parried about all day and for the prior weeks about The Boss, but alas Mr. Springsteen would only make his presence felt in the footnotes. Vedder, joined on stage by a hastily assembled local choir of four, paid tribute to both his dear friend and the city of Asbury Park with a first-ever live performance of Springsteen’s “My City Of Ruins”.

Ironically, Springsteen wrote this song in 2000 to address the years-long deterioration that his beloved city on the Atlantic had endured over the prior two decades and to stand here and listen to Pearl Jam play this song on this beach as Asbury Park has spent the last decade in a cultural renaissance spurred by music and food and the arts, well, that’s exactly the emotional and spiritual change that performance art hopes to affect. Mission accomplished, dear friends.

“Alive” is one of those songs that is played with disturbing regularity until something happens to change that fact, the tragedy at Roskilde and COVID both coming readily to mind. That being said, having been three years removed from its last live performance, having the opportunity to hear this song blaring from a PA with tens of thousands united in all their glory was positively life-affirming. One more song and one more guest would put a bow on this emotionally charged evening as Pearl Jam welcomed Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith’s band to play guitar and sing harmonies along with Klinghoffer and the rest of the Pearl Jam proper for a typically rowdy rendition of Neil Young‘s “Rockin’ In The Free World”.

Pearl Jam w/ Lenny Kaye — “Rockin’ In The Free World” (Neil Young) — 9/18/21

[Video: javier alvizar]

Years of anticipation ticked by at a snail’s pace before two hours passed in the blink of an eye, 35,000+ letting out first a collective roar and then a satisfied sigh, their spiritual cups refilled in the way that only Pearl Jam can. These songs, this band, means so much to so many, and this performance was everything, imperfectly perfect in the most endearing and human of ways.

Pearl Jam returns to the stage this coming Sunday 9/26 at Ohana Festival in Dana Point, CA, and then again on 10/1 and 10/2 Ohana Encore for their only scheduled shows of 2021.

11,273 steps.

Setlist: Pearl Jam | Sea.Hear.Now. | Asbury Park, NJ | 9/18/21

Set: Dance Of The Clairvoyants, Quick Escape [1], Seven O’Clock [1], Corduroy, Present Tense, Never Destination [1], Even Flow, Wishlist [2] [3], Superblood Wolfmoon [1], Red Mosquito [4], Daughter [5], Take The Long Way [1], Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, Given To Fly, State Of Love And Trust, Better Man (Patti Smith), Porch

Encore: My City Of Ruins (Bruce Springsteen), Alive, Rockin’ In The Free World (Neil Young)

[1] Debut

[2] Dedicated to Charlie Watts and Norm MacDonald

[3] w/ “Waiting On A Friend” tag

[4] w/ Danny Clinch on harmonica

[4] w/ “W.M.A” tag