Pearl Jam was on their North American tour in support of their latest album ‘Riot Act.’ The band was making a stop in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois for the first time(and what would be their only time to date). I had never seen one of my favorite bands live before. Now was my chance.
With a few calls to some connections, I greased the wheels and got two press tickets and a photo pass to cover the show. Outside of Ani Difranco, this would be the biggest rock show I would cover, so I was nervously excited.
I met up with some friends I had at the time, and we went out to dinner before the show. We went to Hooters, of all places, another first for me. I had never eaten there before, and I haven’t eaten there since; the food was horrible.
We drove the short distance to the Assembly Hall, I was nervous because I didn’t know how things would pan out. We went up to the ticket window where there was a massive line waiting to get in. We waited in line for a few minutes, but then decided to say “fuck it” and see if we could use our “press” leverage to just get our tickets.
We walked up to the front of the line trying not to cause too much trouble, even though the stares from the people in line were deadly. The big security guard at the front of the line asked what we thought we were doing, and I told him I had to pick up two press tickets and a photo pass for the show. He checked my ID and let us in. There was a little rumbling from the people waiting in line, but I never looked back. I must admit I felt important.
I was ushered to an office where I met Pearl Jam’s tour manager and got my orders, left my camera in the office and went to find our seats. The seats were kind of far back, but I wasn’t complaining.
Not too long after we sat down the house lights went down, and the opening act Sparta took the stage. They were good, and they gave my friends in a local band Absinthe Blind a shout-out, so that was cool.
House lights up.
After Sparta, I had to go back to the office and wait for Pearl Jam’s manager to return so we could get our cameras and be ushered down to the photo area.
It was time.
About five photographers, ushered down to the photo area. It was a long walk, and I heard some people I knew shout my name, so weird. As we went past the barricades there I was, right up against the stage in a five-foot deep area between the band and the front row. I felt like a little kid as I kept turning 360 degrees looking at the wall of humanity waiting for the band to take the stage. I saw this one guy a few rows back who was wearing a leather jacket and looked exactly like Trent Reznor. Turns out that guy would become one of my friends when we met a couple years later.
It seemed like we waited forever as I kept checking and double checking the camera. I was still a novice photographer, so I was hoping just to get something usable. Then finally… The crowd erupted, my palms got sweaty as Pearl Jam took the stage. I was stage left, right in front of guitarist Stone Gossard and front man Eddie Vedder. Eddie walked right in front of me, taking the stage carrying his notebook and a bottle of red wine. Stone strapped on his Les Paul. “All right, let’s go,” Vedder said as the band broke into “Do the Evolution.” I felt like I was at my first concert, that rush of energy which came raining down off the stage was immense.
We were only allowed to take pictures for the first three songs, so I pushed the button on my vintage 1985 Nikon like there was no tomorrow. Click, advance film. Click, advance film. Click, advance film. I went through a roll of film in the first two songs. I loaded up a second roll of film and started again. Click, advance film. Click, advance film. Click, advance film… After a crowd sing-a-long with “Corduroy” and a new song, “Save You,” we were gathered and taken back to the office to leave our cameras. Three songs, roughly 12 minutes of something I will never, ever forget.
While going back to the office I missed “Deep,” “Dissident” and part of “Elderly Woman,” but it didn’t matter. I was sky high.
Back at my seat watching the show it felt like something otherworldly. The power and energy encircled the Assembly Hall like a tornado of positivity. Then at the end of the show during Mike McCready’s blistering extended solo, my then-friend (the once co-founder of Confronting Innocent Words) said to me, “that guitar tone is just unacceptable.” I couldn’t believe my ears, not because of the music, but because of what he had the audacity to say. To this day that pisses me off, considering he was just a local musician who had only been playing guitar for about five years.
Nonetheless, I didn’t let his comments ruin the night as Pearl Jam closed with “Baba O’ Riley,” and Vedder tossed a tambourine to my friend Sarah who was sitting on the side of the stage to cap off an evening of a lifetime.
Pearl Jam – Champaign, Il April 23, 2003 Track Listing:
Do the Evolution
Thumbing My Way
I Am Mine
Given to Fly
Driven to Tears
Know Your Rights
Blue Red and Grey