Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back To Life

Pearl Jam - London O2 Arena 18th August 2009

The feeling at the end of this epic performance was, for Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder ‘beyond words’. It has to be admitted that even for a relative unbeliever, this might have been enough to convert me back to the cause.

I use the qualifications ‘relative’ and ‘convert back’ because, some time in my early teens, I might well have counted Pearl Jam among my favourite bands. I remember waiting for ‘Vitalogy’ to come out with genuine excitement and, even when it turned out to be a rather hit and miss combination of great songwriting, untamed aggression and half-arsed experiments in banality, found that excitement rather uncritically satiated.

Some time after ‘No Code’ (an album that now seems like the key to their catalogue – the point of transition), I switched off. Vedder’s earnest, self-important side seemed to take over and, whilst the band could still knock out serviceable riffs with commanding energy, they seemed to have forgotten about writing memorable songs. In retrospect, perhaps every Pearl Jam album is a little troublesome to digest whole but, whilst ‘Binaural’ ‘Riot Act’ and ‘Pearl Jam’ all have their moments, they somehow seem to veer closer to monotony.

In August 2009, the group seem like a band revitalised. In the early nineties, the group often seemed like the unacceptable face of grunge – the ones who had the ambition to be more than moderately successful and who were also largely comfortable with the results. This year, the obligatory anniversary repackaging of their debut ‘Ten’ has helped remind people that there was always soul and subtlety beneath their mainstream rock sheen. In addition to this, the imminent ‘Backspacer’ seems exactly what is required – a mercilessly concise half hour of new wave influenced pop songs. The three that they tackle during this gig sound refreshingly lightweight and entertaining, free from the burden of clumsy lurches at profundity.

Pearl Jam have clearly been educated at the Bruce Springsteen school of live performance – they’re in absolutely no hurry to finish and know how to get an arena crowd involved. We clap on command and ‘doo-de-doo’ along to the refrain from ‘Black’, proving that nothing unites a huge crowd quite as easily as a break-up song. By the encore, the audience are so enthusiastic that Vedder can afford his own Robbie Williams moment, allowing the crowd to sing the entire opening verse of 'Betterman' for him. The set, at two and a half hours, delivers value for money but also a whole lot more besides. Very few bands could get away with playing for this long without including some of their best loved songs (‘Jeremy’ and ‘Daughter’ are conspicuous by their absence) but Pearl Jam pull off the neat trick of juxtaposing some unpredictable selections with more established gems.

The band play six songs from ‘Ten’ and, save for the half beard denoting some form of maturity, Eddie Vedder has hardly changed much since 1992, still sporting big shorts and trainers and veering between sombre invocations and savage growl (he sounds dignified on ‘Immortality’ but like he’s ripping his own vocal chords out on ‘Blood’). Similarly, Mike McCready, in spite of signs of middle-aged spread, still stalks the stage like a man possessed, unleashing fearsome guitar solos. Much of this music is made for arenas and must have sounded distinctly out of place at their debut London show at the Borderline back in ’92. However, by opening with the otherworldly drone of ‘Release’, the side of the group that veers well beyond stadium rock conventions is immediately emphasised. It’s an odd opening gambit, but it works superbly – the band are left largely unlit for the song’s duration, before the stage lights ignite as the group launch into ‘Animal’. Aside from this, there’s actually very little in the way of big show theatrics here – the visuals for the screens are restrained and sepia-tinged, there are no explosions, no props and no videos. The music is obviously intended to speak for itself.

The first six songs cover the period from ‘Ten’ to ‘Vitalogy’, including a furious ‘Corduroy’ and strident ‘Why Go?’. The group veer straight from this run through their golden period to brand new single ‘The Fixer’, which sits very comfortably alongside those powerful earlier songs. It’s an immediately likeable slice of heavy pop that already looks like a crowd favourite. Vedder precedes it with an endearing bit of amateur psychology, explaining that men always want to find quick fixes to relationship problems when listening and understanding might be the preferred response.

The set takes some bizarre twists and turns as it progresses. Either respectfully or satirically, Vedder introduces a thrilling version of ‘Rats’ with a few bars of Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ and dedicates it to ‘a man who was supposed to be on this very stage, doing what he did’. There are several tracks not associated with any album – in the main set there’s ‘I Got ID’ from the Merkinball single released around the same time as the group’s collaboration with Neil Young on ‘Mirrorball’. The lengthy encores feature covers of songs by The Who and Victoria Williams (‘Crazy Mary’), as well as the punk-meets-Motown stomp of B-side ‘Leavin’ Here’ and a rare example of a B-side that has developed a life all of its own, the closing ‘Yellow Ledbetter’. It’s a gorgeous song, strongly influenced by the more lilting and reflective side of Jimi Hendrix, but also dense and verbose, perhaps even a little obtuse. Surely even Vedder doesn’t know what all the words are!

By this time, it’s 11.15pm and Pearl Jam have clearly outstayed their welcome. The house lights have been turned on in an effort to encourage people to leave, but the group are still onstage, Vedder nonchalantly sharing a bottle of beer and a cigarette with the front row, breaking not only the curfew but the anti-smoking law as well. The show has been a celebration of this group’s considerable virtues and their dogged longevity. They are the true survivors of the grunge era, somehow managing to transcend the style at the same time as maintaining it.

Head Music

Steve Lehman Octet – Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi, 2009)

It cannot be said that the title of this album does not prepare the listener adequately for the music it describes. Saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman is a fearless intellectual and his music comes far more from the head than the heart. Lehman has been exploring the possibilities of metric modulations and broken time for a few years now, both in his own work and in his outstanding trio Fieldwork with Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. His explorations have resulted in some of the most challenging and provocative music currently being made in American jazz.

For this new work, he has focused at least in part on his interest in the techniques of ‘spectral composition’, an approach most closely associated with the composer Tristan Murail, with whom Lehman has studied. This goes well beyond my areas of expertise, but the process apparently involves using computer modelling to base harmony on sound properties rather than on intervals. Its application to the dynamic of a jazz ensemble, particularly the relatively unconventional octet format, at least appears rather apt. The sheets of sound on the opening ‘Echoes’ are weird and disorientating, especially when combined with Lehman’s fondness for head-spinning rhythmic innovation. ‘Echoes’ sets the scene for what follows, which is essentially further explorations of the same ideas, with varying degrees of abstraction.

Lehman’s music here certainly sounds thoroughly composed and arranged. It will also sound somewhat unfamiliar to those ears fully rooted in the jazz tradition. It’s easy to see why it divides opinion (some find Lehman’s relentless complexity and harmonic approach alienating or even unmusical). Yet it’s also possible to approach this challenging music more positively and constructively. For all his preoccupations with software mapping and mathematical precision, much of this music feels spacious and liberated, even accounting for the constant distraction of Tyshawn Sorey’s rapid fire drumming. It works so well at least in part because the rhythm section of Sorey and Drew Gress are strong enough to handle the various subdivisions and tempo changes demanded by Lehman’s arrangements. It also seems that Lehman’s processes can be applied in a variety of ways, from fast tempos (‘No Neighbourhood Rough Enough’) to freer, almost lyrical environments (‘Waves’ – an apt title for this aquatic sounding piece).

This is not, it has to be said, emotional or emotive music. It does not invoke sensations of longing, neither does it express anything particularly profound about the human condition. Only ‘Waves’ approaches anything sensual and the abstruse nature of Lehman’s approach does not result in anything particularly mysterious. It is systems music, perhaps even designed to express nothing beyond itself. Perhaps one does have to work to understand this very specific musical language in order to appreciate it fully. This approach could easily lead Lehman up an artistic cul-de-sac (the same marginal route that many others have followed before him). To these ears, though, there’s something innately thrilling about the juxtaposition of these sheets of peculiar harmony with Tyshawn Sorey’s drumming, seemingly as much drawn from electronic music as from jazz. The impressive technique of the ensemble is put to good use in creating something vibrant and exciting.

Lehman’s success here is to break through borders that are too readily assumed to be closed. His confident absorption of techniques thought only applicable to specific areas of twentieth century composition reinforces the notion that spontaneous interaction and compositional processes need not be mutually exclusive. As if to take the genre-crossing project far beyond its logical conclusion, the album ends with a Wu-Tang Clan transcription, which is as enervating a jazz recording as I’ve heard all year.