“You’re going to have a great fucking night!” Irish balladeer Glen Hansard promised the gathered crowd at the Beacon Theater in New York before playing his last song as opener for headliner Eddie Vedder. “We’re already having one!” an enthusiastic fan replied as the audience cheered in agreement. Hansard achieved his greatest fame after winning an Oscar for his song “Falling Slowly” in 2007, but there was no pretension in the air. Armed with only his guitar, Hansard performed a moving acoustic set to a nearly full house as many fans arrived early to hear his emotive songs. But the audience came for Eddie Vedder. As the frontman of the longest-running popular rock band of recent history, Eddie Vedder carries a die-hard fanbase in his back pocket where ever he goes, whatever he does. In recent years, with a limited solo repertoire, he’s embarked on a few small tours without the band — or band, for that matter — to great success. This latest jaunt is in support of his first official solo album, the self-descriptive Ukulele Songs.
Would this audience break out in near pandemonium for just any ukulele player? Probably not. While their cheers and enthusiasm seem a bit overstated following the neat, sweet songs Vedder performs on the diminutive instrument — “Don’t scare the ukulele,” Vedder quips at one point, “It’s a sensitive little instrument,” — no one can deny the positivity and familial feeling that fills the room. Vedder is in fine condition for the evening, his voice often sounding richer and possessing greater depth than found on the album.
Though he began his performance in silence with little more than a wave to acknowledge the audience, it wasn’t long before Vedder took a few moments to note the beauty of the building. The Beacon Theater has recently been restored to its Art Deco prime, complete with lush red velvet seats and curtains, and ornate gold-trimmed sculpture, hearkening back to the days when the ukulele enjoyed great popularlity in American music and was likely performed regularly on this very stage. More importantly, Vedder regaled the audience with the story of the first rock concert he ever attended in his hometown of Chicago: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. He fondly remembered a resplendent Clarence Clemons “glowing” in a white suit, the Big Man mesmerizing a young fan. To the audience’s amusement, he described his expectation that any rock concert would be as incredible as his first, and the unavoidable disappointment of finding this not so as “one of the harsh realities of adolescence and growing up.” No, not every band is as great, but its clear he took a few pointers from that first experience for his later career.
Keeping things interesting, Vedder had a few surprises for the audience throughout the evening. First came a radical rearrangement of Pearl Jam’s best known song, “Betterman,” rewritten for the ukulele. The audience tried to sing along at first– knowing the words, but not the new melody or tempo — but eventually quieted to enjoy hearing an old song sound new for the first time. Vedder also performed — on acoustic guitar — “Mill Worker” by James Taylor in dedication to the women who recently lost their class-action lawsuit against WalMart. The song is a bitter lament written from the perspective of a woman withering away from the drudgery of daily factory work.
As expected, Vedder spent some time with his solo material from the film Into the Wild, but also invited a string section on stage to support him on a few sentimental songs from Pearl Jam’s most recent album, “Just Breathe” and “The End.” He brought everyone to their feet with “Unthought Known” from the same album, before concluding his first set with “Arc,” a vocals-only performance created live through the use of a recorder and looped playback. As Vedder added layer after layer, his voice slowly built, echoing through the room. The floors rumbled from his bass vocal, as his higher ululations rose to the rafters. Once the room was full, he stood, waved to the audience, and walked offstage as the sounds continued to loop, reverberating off the walls.
Vedder’s second set was full of a few more surprises. He invited Glen Hansard back onstage to join him on the Everly Brothers’ song “Sleepless Nights” and “Society,” also from Into the Wild. Hansard’s voice was a nice complement to Vedder’s, sitting lightly atop Vedder’s baritone. A second (and seemingly short-notice) surprise soon followed as Vedder introduced “super-collider” Neil Finn to the stage. Vedder and Finn have frequently worked together, and guested at each other’s shows, including Vedder’s contribution to Finn’s Seven Worlds Collide project. Finn’s son has also performed as Vedder’s opening act on previous solo tours. Finn played the organ for a tentative — and admittedly unrehearsed — version of “Throw Your Arms Around Me.” Finn then joined Vedder on guitar for Split Enz’s “I Got You.” A sour chord prompted Finn to jokingly call out all chord changes for the latter half of the song, and Vedder later explained, “We play that song differently from each other, but since he wrote it, he’s right!” Although Finn’s performance was a bit loose-hinged, the spontaneity and easy friendship of the two musicians was warmly felt by the audience.
Hansard and Finn rejoined Vedder for show closer “Hard Sun,” an opportunity to drop a blue ocean backdrop, cue the smoke machines and turn up the houselights. With the audience back on their feet dancing, the show seemed to come to a jubilant close, but Vedder had one more surprise in store. As the smoke began to clear, the audience settled back into their seats, and Vedder returned once more with his ukulele to perform “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Originally written in 1931, and performed by a variety of artists from Bing Crosby to the Mamas and the Papas, the song has taken many forms over the years. Vedder’s version was an appropriately soft lullaby to send his fans safely home.