When Eddie Vedder Put the President on Blast and the Crowd Retaliated

In 2003, the Pearl Jam frontman wasn't having any of Bush, and some New Yorkers didn't like it



On October 16, a few hundred irate comedy fans walked out of Amy Schumer’s Tampa show to protest a set that they ultimately decided was too political for their taste.  The whole hullabaloo was a reminder to another time when politics reached a fever pitch, when the country was grossly divided and you could find yourself in a packed arena with hundreds, if not thousands, with divergent beliefs.

It was April 30, 2003 and President George W. Bush had recently invaded Iraq. Dick Cheney had W. and the rest of the U.S. in a giant headlock. FOX News was blasting Shock and Awe 24/7. And Pearl Jam, nominated for the 2017 class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performed a blistering protest set at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island. They’d kicked off their tour in support of Riot Act earlier that year, an album that included the aptly named “Bu$hleaguer.” By the time the band hit New York, Eddie Vedder had already made headlines for mocking the president on stage in Denver.

At the Coliseum, the band tore into the first set, mixing in favorites from their decade-plus of music with songs from the new album. Fans got a small taste of what was to come when the band pulled out Little Steven’s “I Am a Patriot.” Not the first (or last) time Pearl Jam would play that song, but it took on new meaning during this tour.

By the second encore, it was time to shake things up. Vedder danced onto the stage wearing a shiny silver jacket and a George Bush mask. The band tore into “Bu$hleaguer,” and Vedder, unable to sing through the mask, set it on the microphone stand. As he alternately sang and talked his way through the song, he fed “Bush” from a bottle of wine and gave the rubber lips a long smoldering kiss. It was beautiful and angry and powerful, and not a giant a surprise. This is the band that took on Ticketmaster nine years prior. This is the band that wrote “Not For You,” that had been railing against the system since its inception.

As it turned out, many fans turned against Vedder. Some booed, chanted “USA!” and threw quarters at the stage. Vedder addressed the response.  “I’m with you,” he said. “USA. I just think that all of us in this room should have a voice in how the USA is represented. And [Bush] didn’t allow us our voice.”

The band launched into “Know Your Rights,” Vedder growling his way through the Clash classic, and finished (as they often do) with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Then a mic drop, and they were gone.

— Stephanie Wargin


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