Johnny Guitar

Image I few weeks ago I asked my cousin, a fellow Pearl Jam fan, what he thought of the Wrigley Field 2013 setlist–especially as it featured a trio of upcoming  Lightning Bolt songs, including the as-yet-unreleased “Lightning Bolt” and “Future Days.” He responded in part by asking me why I thought recent Pearl Jam shows seemed to be bereft of most recent material. The basic construction of a setlist seems to be to take a healthy dose of Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy, and then add a smattering of everything else.  When a new album comes out, that changes things a bit, but only insofar as the formula becomes albums 1, 2, 3, and New Album.  Everything else is a crapshoot (rapture).

With the advent of setlist.fm, it’s actually really easy to get the cold hard stats on this–and it pans out. With the exception of Yield, which manages to hang at least somewhat with Pearl Jam’s Big 3. But unless they’re touring specifically for a new album, expect it to get punked on subsequent tours. Riot Act, Binaural, Pearl Jam, and No Code don’t get represented all that often, unless it’s Halloween or something.

Of course, all bets are off as of yet for Backspacer. When the full-on Lightning Bolt tour kicks off in earnest, I have no idea what material from 2009 the band will feel like playing, or decide makes sense in the context of the new tunes. But if history is any indication, there’s a lot of Backspacer songs that are about to be put to bed. Wrigley only featured one.

While many Pearl Jam fans might celebrate such a scenario (uber-fan reaction seems to have swung decidedly against Backspacer in the four years since its release), I’d be a shame if certain songs were relegated to rarity status even more than they already are. I’m looking at you “Johnny Guitar,” which was only played a third of the time during the BS tour. The song gets my vote for the most underrated from that record, and possibly one of their all time most underrated. I don’t think it’s perfect (end of song fadeouts don’t usually bug me, but the one on this track really, really does), but when I’m playing DJ while riding shotgun while my wife drives, this is the song I most want to hear off this album.

Why? Because it’s fun. I know a lot of songs on Backspacer were designed to be fun, but this one’s weirder, more idiosyncratic, the rhythm and the pacing of the chord changes and Ed’s singing just a little off-kilter and unexpected, and listening to that album four years removed really highlights how much it needed more messiness. Or maybe I should say that I would like it more if it were messier, even though I think the band’s intention was specifically tightness, conciseness, brevity.  My tastes are just running woolier these days. I love that “Johnny Guitar” threatens to kind of fly off the rails, despite it’s catchiness. It takes risks that other songs, god help me “Force of Nature” being one, do not.

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~ by Michael on August 5, 2013.

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