The beach in Asbury Park, N.J., may have at first seemed an unlikely venue to host Pearl Jam’s first concert in more than three years, but it turned out to be a highly appropriate locale the weekend of Sept. 18 at the third-annual Sea.Hear.Now festival on the Jersey Shore. “We’ve got the moon lighting up the ocean,” Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder marveled early during the band’s headlining set. “The ocean goes on forever and it looks like the crowd does too.”
Pearl Jam would probably not have been on the beach in the first place if not for the roles played by a number of Jersey locals during the band’s 30-year career. Vedder has been a Bruce Springsteen fanatic since he was a teenager, and the two artists have built a very close personal and professional connection since the early 2000s. Pearl Jam has a similarly deep relationship with Sea.Hear.Now partners Danny Clinch and Tim Donnelly, themselves Jersey natives who quickly bonded with the group over music and surfing after their first meeting at a 1992 Lollapalooza tour stop 70-some miles away in Stanhope.
Saluting famed rock photographer Clinch before he joined Pearl Jam on harmonica for “Red Mosquito,” Vedder admitted that Clinch had tried to get band members to visit Asbury Park for years before they finally took the plunge: “He said, we’ve got surf, we’ve got good people, we’ve got a boardwalk, we’ve got pinball machines, we’ve got everything a human being could want. We said, we’ll get there! We’ll get there! And then we never got here. Thirty years of working with this fella, and this whole time, he’s actually the prince of Asbury.”
And although Springsteen did not make a long-rumored on-stage appearance with Pearl Jam, Vedder covered his 2000 song “My City of Ruins,” which was written about the deterioration of Asbury Park in the late 20th century. The song took on new meaning in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but 20 years later, it now embodies the cultural rejuvenation of the Asbury Park area that Sea.Hear.Now aims to highlight. “The song was appropriate because of what’s happened in Asbury Park and how it has come up from the ashes, with the help of the artists, musicians and the lesbian and gay community,” Clinch tells Variety. “For Eddie to recognize that, and to want to cover one of Bruce’s songs, was really emotional.”
Late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ son Jarod said he was “in tears” after the performance. “It was such a magical night knowing that we’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re somewhat back to normal,” he said.
Vedder further nodded to Springsteen’s outsized legacy in the area as he mused about the Boss’ November 2020 DUI arrest for taking two tequila shots with a local couple in a state park. “Of course you offer him a shot of tequila, and of course Bruce is gonna say yes, because he loves fuckin’ tequila. And he loves talking story a little bit,” Vedder said. “I just think that instead of a summons to appear in court, I think he should have gotten a police escort home. I just think that’s how you should do it in Jersey. You should make an exception. Or, no. Actually, have your partner take the motorcycle home, put Bruce in the back and drive him home. You get to go to Bruce’s house and I bet [that] on the way, he’d tell you a pretty good story.”
Vedder’s love of the Garden State didn’t only extend to Springsteen and Clinch. He also paid homage to New Brunswick native Patti Smith, saying he hoped he could “maybe be” her when he grew up. Earlier during Smith’s own set, she recalled visiting Asbury Park’s dog beach and seeing another “big kid” playing in the water, who turned out to be Vedder. She also referenced Asbury Park’s legendary club the Stone Pony as her late mother’s favorite place to watch her perform.
The 2020 edition of Sea.Hear.Now was scrapped due to the pandemic, but an overwhelming majority of fans kept their tickets and returned to the event this year. Indeed, the festival drew more than 30,000 fans to Asbury Park over the weekend for performances by the Avett Brothers, Lord Huron, Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Idol and more. At least one band besides Pearl Jam was brave enough to cover Springsteen, with Moon Taxi giving “Dancing in the Dark” a valiant try during a Sunday afternoon set.
Surfers such as Sam Hammer, Cassidy McClain and Rob Kelly displayed their talents in the ocean adjacent to the main Surf stage, while Clinch put a big spotlight on visual art and photography via a festival pop-up edition of his local Transparent Clinch Gallery, which hosted art and performances by Vedder, Mike McCready and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, Smith, Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers, Billy Morrison of Billy Idol’s band, Trevor Terndrup of Moon Taxi, Tim Showalter of Strand of Oaks, Liz Cooper, Briston Maroney, Hirie and James Black and James Heardman of Jackson Pines. A portion of proceeds from sales in the gallery will go to charities Save the Bay and Surfrider Foundation.
“I’m relatively new to visual art, so the fact that there’s a painting of mine up in this gallery really does not make sense to me at all,” Maroney tells Variety, adding that after a year-plus in lockdown, playing a festival of this size was particularly significant. The Tennessee native said performing in the seaside town, “which looks like a Wes Anderson movie set,” felt special because “everyone was there to have a good time. We could go home in two weeks and never, ever get to play a stage this size again, so it really puts into perspective how special this is for everyone.”
Grouplove performed stripped-down in the Transparent Clinch tent on Sunday before its own festival set later in the day. “We literally walked out of the van and onto the stage,” says group member Hannah Hooper, who contributed two paintings to the pop-up. “I love when art can be combined with music.”
Elsewhere, the city’s Wooden Walls Project featured an art installation by Porkchop and murals by Holly Suzanne Rader and Bradley Hoffer. Work by local artists Jay Alders, Emily Arenberg, George Bates, John Glenn, Lucia Holm, Melissa Hood, Ronnie Jackson, Ron Liberti, Shane McClatchey, Ave McClendon, Moana Art, Max Mueller, Fiona Mullen, Neil O’Brien, Holly Suzanne Rader, Rob Santello and Scott Szegeski was also displayed on the festival grounds.
Asbury Park’s deep musical roots were at the forefront again during a post-Pearl Jam jam session on Saturday with Clinch and the Tangiers Blues Band at the Stone Pony. Several young Sea.Hear.Now artists showed impressive chops while making guest appearances, including guitarist/vocalist Ron Artis II, Remember Jones and members of Goose. As the hour stretched past 1 a.m., Patti Smith Band guitarist Lenny Kaye led the band through a sizzling version of “Gloria,” recalling that he had trekked to the venue from New York in 1969 and randomly witnessed Springteen’s pre-fame band Child play a 10-minute version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”
Sea.Hear.Now is produced by Clinch, Donnelly and HM Wollman in partnership with Tim Sweetwood and C3 Presents (pictured below).