July 11, 2011
@ Paramount Theatre, Oakland
Way better than: Eddie Vedder's all-ukulele record (Ukulele Songs, it's called).
Nothing against the four-stringed instrument that resulted when Portuguese immigrants landed on the Hawaiian islands. Really. The ukulele has a certain magic. But its sweetness, simplicity, and accessibility don't make it the most versatile string-over-wood contraption in the world, which is partly why we were a little trepidatious about Eddie Vedder's solo tour stop in Oakland last night (and again tonight).
Thankfully, the opening ukulele show-off was just the appetizer for a long and winding and rather great performance. The onetime San Diego resident indulged his surfer-boy side with the Hawaiian instrument and a few lesser-known (and generally lesser) Pearl Jam tunes. But he also reworked a few of the band's standards for solo guitar and ukulele, played some winning cuts from his soundtracking career, and co-starred in an amazing version of "Falling Slowly" with opener (and possible show-stealer) Glen Hansard.
It took an arsenal of instruments to accomplish this. Vedder listed the full tally of gear in the program, right down to the stool he sat on and the Corona beer crate he occasionally used as a kickdrum. Among the gorgeous vintage guitars and amplifiers were also an old school reel-to-reel machine (among the only tape players of which we still approve), an organ, and a mandolin. Vedder even listed the round Persian rug put down below him (8 feet in diameter; courtesy of Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament). But aside from a few songs on which Glen Hansard contributed, Vedder played everything himself -- there was no backing band or supporting instruments.
The show began, as expected, with some of Vedder's ukulele songs. And while "Can't Keep" still seems wasted on the instrument, other tunes fared better. "Without You," in particular used its smooth treble to gorgeous effect. But "Broken Heart" -- despite Vedder explaining the depths of depression in which it was written -- still felt like a rather minor song compared with others he's penned.
Soon enough, Vedder was playing on six strings and reworking Pearl Jam material. The packed house howled for hits like "Better Man" (rearranged into a delicate parlor guitar version); "Wishlist" (with lyrics about the neutron bomb changed to "I would never go off"); and "I Am Mine" (which strangely feels like a hit even though it's off Riot Act, one of those frowned-upon later albums). These were certainly highlights -- but they weren't the only ones.
We got a lighter, more straightforward side of Vedder on songs like "Long Nights" and "Guaranteed," both from the Into the Wild soundtrack. And while tunes like the fan club-released "Santa Cruz" might take up valuable time at a Pearl Jam show (sample lyric: "Got the feeling I just can't lose/Rolling into Santa Cruz"), they went down fine in a room where everyone had a seat. Anyone who cares enough to pay $70 or more to see Eddie Vedder solo probably knows the guy has a basement full of songs the other members of Pearl Jam were smart enough to keep him from putting on an album. You go to shows like this to hear those songs.