This story is about the night Pearl Jam's lead singer went Americana, singing a cover of a Jason Isbell song. And how, despite the odds, my wife and I were there to see it.
On Sunday, closing out the Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona, Eddie Vedder broke into "Maybe It's Time," the song Isbell wrote for Bradley Cooper's character to sing in "A Star is Born."
I was walking back to the spot Jill had saved for us while I shot the first three songs of Vedder's set. After we purchased VIP tickets to see the festival's second day, I sought a photo pass to shoot and write about it. My pitch, which the festival's PR team graciously accepted, was an essay on how seeing Eddie Vedder live was a bucket list item for my wife of almost 23 years.
We traveled from our home just outside Washington, D.C., to Tempe to attend the festival, now in its second year. Our purpose was to hear someone whose voice and songwriting my wife appreciates as much as Isbell, a performer we saw live in several venues last year.
Little did we know what was about to happen.
Released in late 1994, Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" was a multiplatinum behemoth that completed a trilogy that started with "Ten" and continued with "Vs." The album included several hit singles, but no song was bigger or has had a more lasting impact than "Better Man," an album-only track never released as a 45.
The story of a woman trying to get out of an abusive (physical, emotional or both is not specified) relationship, the song's protagonist fears she'll never be able to leave her partner. Vedder wrote the song in high school and later pitched it to the other Pearl Jam members, but the band initially refused to record it, feeling that it was too accessible for the style of music they were making.
Shortly after Jill and I met, "Better Man" started receiving airplay on the stations we listened to from nearby Greensboro and Raleigh. Trapped at the time in a cyclical relationship with no end in sight, "Better Man" particularly resonated with her during what is described most succinctly as a difficult time.
Fortunately, unlike the song's protagonist, Jill finally got the courage to terminate the relationship. It wasn't too long after that we married and had three children within the span of a year.
Flash forward a decade. Vedder has written the songs for 2007’s "Into the Wild," a soundtrack that is an unlikely — though deserved — hit. Although our fandom doesn't come close to matching that of Pearl Jam's most ardent admirers, my wife always has had great admiration for Vedder's playing and voice, especially solo. "Into the Wild" sealed it for her, and for me too.
Then, in 2009, Pearl Jam released "Just Breathe," one of the three most beautiful love songs we know. (The other two are Isbell's "Cover Me Up" and "If We Were Vampires, further completing the circle.) After hearing "Just Breathe," Jill tells me Vedder is someone she's like to see live.
Trouble is, between kids and busy work schedules, plus scant availability for any Pearl Jam show that plays within reasonable distance, we couldn't seem to make it work.
Enter the Innings Festival.
In 2018, organizers took advantage of Arizona's springtime climate — or what we call May in the rest of the world — and the start of baseball's spring training to throw a music festival at a park overlooking Tempe Town Lake.
When I saw Vedder would headline the second day of the festival this year, I moved quickly (for once) to snap up tickets. With the kids grown and out of the house, we have downsized and are working to check items off the bucket list when time and opportunities allow.
Like other events of this nature, the Innings Festival draws a diverse range of acts as well as a few baseball legends. Last year, for example, the Avett Brothers and Chris Stapleton were headliners along with Queens of the Stone Age, Phosphorescent and The Decemberists.
This year's lineup included Sheryl Crow, Cake and Incubus on Saturday. Sunday's lineup was an eclectic mix as well, with performances by The Record Company (a helluva opener), G. Love and Special Sauce, Jimmy Eat World, Shakey Graves, Liz Phair (strong), St. Paul & the Broken Bones (good in spots but not on their A game), Mat Kearney and Band of Horses (our favorites other than Vedder).
When we arrived Sunday so I could pick up the photo pass, Vedder's soundcheck was coming through the PA. Although he was not singing, he was playing "Better Man." Jill squeezed my hand. She had been waiting to hear this song live for almost 25 years, a sort of closure for something that dominated her life almost half a lifetime ago.
What I like about Vedder's solo shows, based on bootlegs and videos from his sporadic acoustic tours over the past decade, are the variety of covers he chooses to play.
His loose, free flowing Innings Festival set featured, in addition to various Pearl Jam and solo pieces, covers of songs by Warren Zevon, U2, Tom Petty, and The Beatles. He shredded the ukulele on a cover of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," followed by Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night."
Nothing, not even the appearance by Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden (one of Vedder's closest friends) and several Cubs players "singing" back up on the "Hard Sun" closer, prepared us for "Maybe It's Time."
Vedder's sublime rendering of Isbell's song, a huge headline in music circles on Monday, makes sense. Cooper mannered parts of his "A Star is Born" role, who was from Arizona, on Vedder and met with the singer while developing the character.
But, as Isbell tweeted later, "Holy shit."
Having shot the start of the set, I was making my way back to Jill when the song started and pushed my way through the massive crowd to reach her for the last two-thirds.
There we stood, amid thousands of Vedder and Pearl Jam fans, lost in our thoughts and alone together.
That moment eased the sting a bit when Vedder, for whatever reason, ended his set without playing "Better Man." As I mentioned to my wife, his cover of a song by a writer we so appreciate may be the gateway to the next chapter, allowing us to put those long-ago memories behind us.
"Maybe it's time to let the old ways die..."
This essay, along with more photos from the festival, was posted on the Americana Highways website. For more photos from the various acts, check out my Concert Photography page soon. You also can find photos on my Instagram (@glenncookphotography) and on my Facebook photography page.