I've never been what would be described as a fan of Pearl Jam but I like their music. Perhaps from seeing him in the Sundance "Iconoclast" series, I've been generally aware that Eddie Vedder is a respected musician. But seeing them perform at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit last night gave me deep new respect for the man and the group. For those who've never been, the annual concert benefits the Bridge School. The school was started by Neil and Peggy Young and works with severely mentally and physically handicapped kids. The concert is also notable in that the kids are up on stage and, along with their parents and caregivers, form a backdrop to the stage. We've been going to the benefit for the last 4 or 5 years and it is always telling to see whether musicians play solely to the audience or to the kids as well. I've never spent much time with someone that was severely handicapped so I have to confess that I would more likely avoid contact for fear of not knowing how. Among the musicians that I remember paying special attention to the kids are Dave Matthews, Gwen Stefani, and now, Eddie Vedder. Other have as well but these are the ones that made an extra effort. At last year's benefit, Gwen Stefani sang a whole song facing the kids with her back to the audience.
My wife and I came away from last night's performance personally touched, not just by Eddie Vedder's talent but what seems to be a deep respect for others around him. He started by dedicating his first song not just to the kids, but to one in particular, Cara. You could tell this brought enormous joy to her. Her face was contorting among several expressions no doubt due to her disabilities but you could tell that what she was trying to telegraph was deep, profound joy. Eddie also thanked "Uncle Neil" for helping to launch Pearl Jam's success. Later in the set, he was joined on stage by some classical musicians most likely from here in the Bay Area. As he was wrapping up for the night, he took to time to thank each of the classical musicians by name. Lastly he thanked the "amazing kids" and "incredible parents" of the Bridge School for inviting him to play, something he has done many times over the years. He then told the audience that, "we think we're doing this for them but really, it ends up doing so much for us."
Of course, one could be cynical and say that he knows what to say or that he was handed a slip of paper with Cara's name and the names of the classical musicians on it. Whether this happened or not, he spoke the names from memory and with sincerity. Eddie Vedder's voice is clearly the dominant instrument of the band. But on several songs I was struck by his sense of timing in remaining silent when you expected him to sing again. With all of his talent on voice and guitar, he could be forgiven if he became the typical self-obsessed, publicity-seeking rock star. Perhaps in part due to Uncle Neil's example, last night Eddie made it clear that he is a man with great integrity and someone who has earned my respect on many levels.