Monday, October 24, 2011

Pearl Jam 20/The Swell Season

Pearl Jam 20
seen on TV @ PBS

The Swell Season
seen @ Cinema Village, New York NY

To be honest, I was more of a Soundgarden fan in the 90s. It was my old high school buddy John who got me into them. I was going through my brief metalhead phase in the late 80s-early 90s when John told me about this band from Seattle that sounded kinda like metal, only different. He let me listen to his copy of Badmotorfinger and that was what did it. Pretty soon I started hearing more and more about the new sound represented by Soundgarden and other Seattle bands called "grunge" and that was my new thing. (Before I first heard it, I remember thinking "Smells Like Teen Spirit" must be a Weird Al-like parody song with a title like that - and in a way, it kind of was.)

Pearl Jam was part of that wave, of course, and I loved them too. There are a small handful of songs that, to this day, still make me feel like I did the first time I heard them, and one of those is "Alive." The solo at the end always gives me chills.

John was always three steps ahead of me music-wise, but I think we both had an awareness, on some level, that "grunge" was a fabrication. Still, we didn't care. To us, it was just about the music - and we were certainly under no delusions that Kurt Cobain "spoke" to us. We were two black kids from the inner city (well, John's half black). Our experiences were fundamentally different from most of the MTV Generation. Sure, we identified more with rock than with rap (I've talked about growing up with rap before), and we dug grunge as much as everyone else did, but we also listened to Living Colour and Fishbone (and Tracy Chapman) and they were as important to us, if not more so. That's another story though.

Cameron Crowe's documentary Pearl Jam 20 (a censored version, since this aired on PBS) brought me back to this time in my life, not just when I listened to grunge, but "alternative rock" in general. I was never much of a huge concert goer, but I made it to Lollapalooza (with John) and I saw quite a few bands live during the early-to-mid 90s. Remind me to tell you about the time I saw The Cure at Nassau Colosseum - there's a decent story to go with that. (BTW, if you wanna know more about this period in rock, I highly recommend the book Life on Planet Rock by Lonn Friend.)

Pearl Jam was on the radio all the time, so I knew all their songs. Not that I'm any kind of singer, but Eddie Vedder's voice was right within my vocal range, which made PJ songs easier to sing along to than Soundgarden songs. Chris Cornell did a lot more wailing and screeching, which is cool and all, because he's great at it, but I think Vedder has a slightly better overall voice. Slightly. And of course both of them are better singers than Cobain, who just mumbled everything.

So I got older, my musical tastes evolved again, and like Devo, I decided I was through being cool. Whatever music I liked was whatever I liked, regardless of whether it was "in" or not. I drifted back into pop and rap a little, and I rediscovered oldies - music from my parents' generation. When I was in Columbus, my roommate Max told me about Pandora and I discovered a bunch of new bands (and old bands that were new to me) through that website. And then one day I went to see a small Irish film called Once...

Much has been written of the fairy tale-like romance between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of Once, who would win an Oscar for their song "Falling Slowly." I was quite impressed with the movie's unassuming, character-driven narrative, which flew in the face of 99% of Hollywood romance movies. I saw them with their band, The Swell Season, live last year, and again, let me reiterate - they're no genteel folkie band, at least not all of the time. Hansard is one of the most intense live performers I've ever seen.

Their subsequent post-Oscar success is chronicled in the documentary The Swell Season, which could be considered the sequel to Once ("Twice"?). I kept thinking about how young Irglova is (about 20 or 21) and how fame has been thrust upon her so suddenly. It's not like she's worked half her life for it, as Hansard has - and even he doesn't seem completely at peace with his newfound fame. In her case, it seems as if she just needs some space every once in awhile to be a normal girl again, which is completely understandable. The whole world has this image of the two of them together, almost like pop music royalty in a way, and it's easy to imagine how stifling that can be. It's perhaps no great surprise, then, that they did break up romantically, though not professionally.

For all that, though, their relationship as seen in the documentary seems rather chaste (the skinny dipping scene notwithstanding). Hansard met Irglova when she was something like fifteen, I think, and while she makes it clear that she fell for him as much as he did for her over the course of time, it's hard not to squirm a bit at the wide age difference. (Though in fairness, Europeans have a different attitude about that sort of thing than we Americans.)

So what, if anything, do these two films have in common besides the obvious? For one thing, they both go deeply into how both bands cope with the consequences of fame. Also, Vedder and Hansard both have father issues. "Alive" was written after Vedder discovered the man he thought was his father actually wasn't, and that his real father had died. A number of subsequent PJ songs deal with the relationships between parents and children, to varying degrees. Hansard talks about how his father kept secrets from his family right up until his death, secrets which he drank heavily to keep from them.

In addition, both films indicate, to me, how difficult finding the right chemistry for a band truly is. Pearl Jam 20 discusses original lead singer Andrew Wood (when they were still called Mother Love Bone) and how devastating his death was. Finding Vedder when they did was a godsend - and, as they admit later on, it changed the dynamic of the group significantly. Hansard, by contrast, played in bands for years prior to hooking up with Irglova, but when he did it was clear that something had changed. He jokes about how "Falling Slowly" was a less macho song than what he was used to while playing with guys for so long.

After watching Season on Saturday, I went to see an actual live band. My pal Dave and his wife Martha are part of a folk/country band called Home Cookin' (she sings, he plays the saxophone) that were playing in a Queens cafe. Apparently they don't get to rehearse too often, as some of them were reading off of sheet music. Dave has played in several different bands in the past, including his own, so maybe that's part of the reason why. Not sure. They sounded good, if a bit ragged in places (Martha was playing with a cold), and for a cozy basement room in a cafe, they got a fair amount of people (the last time I saw them at this venue, the crowd was a little bigger).

Once again, I thought of how important chemistry is in a band. For a band that doesn't rehearse often, they still sounded fairly cohesive. They didn't appear to feel any pressure, as was evident by their playful banter between songs, but then, it's not like they were playing the Beacon Theater. I'm not certain how the two of them would deal with sudden fame, though I have my suspicions. From what Dave has told me in the past, I get the impression being a musician is less of a career aspiration for Martha than it is for him, though she has been in a band before. Unlike Hansard and Irglova, they're much closer in age, and they have goals of their own outside of the band. They still enjoy doing what they do, though, which is good to see.


  1. aw Man, My wife would be so jealous if she read this.
    Pearl Jam 20 opened for 1 day day!! Can you believe that?

    I love is my era!!


  2. nice review. I want to check out that Pearl Jam doc. going to have to ask Santa to bring it down my chimney.

  3. Hopefully it'll be on DVD by then. Thanks for stopping by.


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