When I first heard Eddie Vedder was releasing an album composed solely of ukulele songs, I wondered if we were about to watch the venerable grungeman do a David Lee Roth-style scissor kick over the proverbial shark. Shame on me for believing such nonsense. After hearing Vedder's Ukulele Songs, released in May, I was reminded what a wonderful instrument the "uke" can be--evocative of a simple, childlike frame of mind--innocent and seemingly lacking in musical potency, yet incredibly sweet sounding and always a little heartbreaking.
This album saw Vedder, with his ample star power and charisma, successfully cobble together a fantastic collection of lovelorn original songs in addition to a couple kick-ass covers including "Dream a Little Dream of Me," and "Tonight You Belong to Me" from the Steve Martin film, The Jerk. So it was after listening to the venerable grungeman's latest release that I took my seat in a packed house in Long Beach with bated breath. But I exited the doors feeling the subtle sting of disappointment.
Christopher Victorio/OC Weekly
Sitting alone on a stool at center stage for most of his two-hour set, Vedder was surrounded by a few props, including an analog tape machine and a couple suitcases. From the first curtain pull to the final encore, it was clear the audience was never going to get enough of this man whom they've worshiped for more than 20 years. Toward the end of the set, when the curtain dropped, people began chanting "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie," just like they had in 1994 when Pearl Jam played the Empire polo fields in Indio.
After finishing the set's opening number, "Can't Keep," Vedder stopped and struck a pose with his hand perched on his waist--a simple innocuous gesture that led to raucous applause. No doubt folks were spurred on by his booming, resonant voice juxtaposed against the tinny sounding toy-like guitar which rippled throughout the massive auditorium configured for optimal sound.
Distilled Vedder was lush in its simplicity--his gorgeous deep voice with the occasional raspy crack, unhindered by the distortion of loud guitars and rattling drums. Vedder himself rambled jokingly about how the ukulele doesn't get intimidated by larger instruments like cellos and lacks a "Napoleonic complex."
Indeed, its unassuming silhouette hides great sonic power. Unfortunately he only played a handful of songs from his new album, including "Sleeping by Myself" and "Without You." As he was strumming the first few notes of the song "Goodbye," he appeared to make a mistake and stopped abruptly. He didn't continue with the song, and instead launched into an unreleased track called "You're True." Soon after, he abandoned uke entirely and proceeded to play solo material, Pearl Jam songs and covers with a standard axe for the rest of the evening. No "Dream a Little Dream of Me," no "Tonight You Belong to Me." This was a big disappointment for two reasons, neither because the songs were poorly played.
First, it was irritating to see the usually rebellious Vedder forsake the artistically unexpected path he chose with his last album. His decision to make an entire record with a ukulele was a gimmick that resulted in a great album and was (theoretically) the reason people shelled out big bucks to be there (unless they were really expecting to hear "Jeremy" and "Evenflow").
Second, the rest of the set was dedicated largely to music from Vedder's soundtrack for Into the Wild, not his best work when considering the songs from earlier in Pearl Jam's career. The exception to this was the duet Vedder sang with opening performer Glen Hansard of the song "Big Hard Sun." Thanks to Hansard's powerful howl harmonizing perfectly with Vedder's, the inspirational strummer evoked majestic images of the Alaskan back country. Judging by the crowd's exuberant reaction to the entire set (read...multiple standing ovations), my disappointment was far from universal.
Vedder dazzled and charmed with such Pearl Jam favorites as "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," "Sometimes" and, at the end of the set joined onstage by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, the duo performed "Yellow Ledbetter."
He also demonstrated his penchant for picking the cream of the crop in choosing songs to cover, most notably with Tom Waits's wistful "Picture in a Frame," and John Doe's "Fourth of July."
Perhaps critics like me shouldn't complain. There was a time when Vedder was so disgusted with his fame (requests for photos, media coverage and endless requests for the song "Black") he almost threw in the towel. Now his fans seem happy to accept whatever he throws their way, and so is he. It would seem everybody's happy.
The crowd: A well represented cross section of society: hippies with dreadlocks, olive-skinned beauties with fake boobs and stretchy pants, older surfer dudes, and a smattering of bros in ball caps.
Overheard: When Vedder explained that all a girl needed to play ukulele was the inspiration of a good man, one girl in the audience shouted back "Hard to find!"