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History lives one last night as Pearl Jam closes it out

Forty-two years after opening its doors with the Quaker City Jazz Festival, and 15 months after its impending demolition was announced, the Spectrum said the last of its long goodbyes in South Philadelphia last night.

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam plays the last song as balloons and confetti fall in the Spectrum. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam plays the last song as balloons and confetti fall in the Spectrum. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Forty-two years after opening its doors with the Quaker City Jazz Festival, and 15 months after its impending demolition was announced, the Spectrum said the last of its long goodbyes in South Philadelphia Saturday night.

The master of ceremonies for the momentous occasion was Eddie Vedder, the charismatic rock star whose band, Pearl Jam, played the final four shows at the venue, which opened in 1967.

The grand finale brought the curtain down on the storied arena, which was home to championship Flyers and Sixers teams before the Wachovia Center opened in 1996. And it closed out a packed October that included a four-night run by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

"This is it!" Vedder exulted, with both arms raised, as the band hit the stage at 8:58 p.m. and launched headlong into "Why Go."

A few songs later the front man, fired up and feeding off the supremely stoked Halloween night crowd, took a deep breath and said: "I don't want to say goodbye to this place. I don't even want to think about it yet. I just want to keep . . . rocking."

After blasting through the punkish "The Fixer," from the band's new album, Backspacer - in which Vedder sang, "When something's gone, I want to fight to get it back again" - he had more end-of-the-Spectrum thoughts to share.

"I tell you, everybody in this band would have wanted to be here for the last night in this building, even if we weren't playing here," Vedder said. "So I understand we have a big job to do. We're going to have to pace ourselves, because we're going to be here for a long time."

Later, he addressed rumors that the finale would feature everyone from Springsteen to Neil Young to Billy Joel. He said none of them would be coming. "Who starts these rumors, anyway?" asked Vedder, who also denied rumors the band would play till 3 a.m. "They stop selling beer here at 11:30." (At midnight, though, Vedder was leading a crowd 18,000 strong in a sing-a-long of "Better Man," and there was no end in sight.)

Instead, the populist rocker brought out 89-year-old stagehand Charlie DiFabio of Havertown, who's worked at the Spectrum since its inception. DiFabio asked everybody to enjoy the show, and got a larger ovation than the band did when it played the rarity "Out of My Mind." (Though not as big as the one given a woman dressed as a cancan dancer, brought on stage by Vedder holding a sign that said the Phillies were ahead, 3-0).

The fans who witnessed the Spectrum's last stand were there first and foremost to see Pearl Jam. Nearly 20 years into their career, the Seattle grunge survivors continue to command an enormous audience, and, led by Vedder, a rock-and-roll true believer, they're a powerful live band that delights loyal fans by not just playing signature anthems like "Jeremy" and "Alive" but also digging deep into its expansive catalog.

The crowd, considerably younger than the one convened for Springsteen's shows, was also out to experience one last high-volume blast of Philadelphia history, by gathering in the oval arena that's played host to the Rolling Stones and Prince, Madonna and Frank Sinatra, Charles Barkley and Bobby Clarke.

"It means a lot," said Chris Cerulli, 23, hanging out with his friends Justin O'Pella, Rich Wood, and Derek Dutill, all of Roxborough, in the parking lot before Friday's show. "There's two nights left, so they're going to pull out something special for us." (That night's surprises included a closing, cathartic cover of The Who's "Baba O'Riley.")

"The atmosphere in here is great," said Wood, 22.

Besides all that, there was an even greater motivation for the four buddies to make it back to the mythic arena. "In Rocky, Apollo Creed says, 'I want to fight Rocky Balboa in the Philadelphia Spectrum.' They show it on TBS all the time," Cerulli said.

"I saw my first concert here when I was 11," said Joe Ippolito, 39, of Norristown. "It was Van Halen. It was the first place I got turned on to live music."

Ippolito, a teacher at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts and former singer for the cover band Flip Like Wilson, acknowledged that time had run out on the Spectrum.

"Unfortunately, it's also really outdated," he said Friday, standing by the Main Street Music booth, where the Manayunk record store was selling merchandise at Pearl Jam's invitation. "I just almost got crushed walking around the concourse.

"But for a music fan, it's magic when the lights go out. It's like every kid's fantasy when you walk through those doors. I've seen everybody here. Jane's Addiction, U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kiss. I've seen Bobby Clarke and Mario Lemieux here, Dominique Wilkins and Eddie Vedder.

"And I'll tell why it's a shame that they're tearing it down: Can you tell me where the Target Center is? The Xcel Center?" (A Google search reveals both are in Minnesota.) "But the Spectrum? That's part of Philadelphia."

On Friday, Vedder expressed similar regrets. "Why don't they just save the f- place?" he asked. "Forty-two years is not that old. I'm 44," he said, showing off his biceps.

Vedder paused, and acknowledged that nothing he said from the stage would keep the wrecking ball from coming down.

"OK, it may be too late to save this place," the scruffy singer said before he and his band - guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, and drummer Matt Cameron, plus keyboard player Boom Gaspar - hurled into "Tremor Christ." "So let's just f- celebrate it."

And for four nights, that's just what Pearl Jam did.

"We jumped at the opportunity to be part of these last shows," Vedder said. "We consider it a huge honor."

Earlier in the week, Vedder expanded on the idea of the Spectrum as a holy temple of rock when he said that during a sound check "there were these shafts of light coming through these side windows. It was like God's light, if there is one. It was amazing."

Pearl Jam took the stage each night after a video montage showed clips of Julius Erving and Bernie Parent as well as Springsteen and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia while the "Theme From Rocky" blared.

And they showed why, despite coming from thousands of miles apart, Pearl Jam and Springsteen made for a perfect pair of acts to bring down the curtain on the cramped and beloved arena, which was so busy in its '70s heyday that it made the slogan "America's Showplace" more than an idle marketing boast.

As with its superstar athletes, Philadelphia prefers its rock stars gritty as well as talented, down-to-earth, and appreciative of tradition. And it helps if they play it like they mean it.

And as Pearl Jam made plain all week long, it is nothing if not the hardworking band, and the influence of the classic rock bands that built the Spectrum's legend courses through their music. That's particularly true of Vedder, whose arena roar is unmistakably reminiscent of such original rock gods as Jim Morrison and Roger Daltrey. All of which made Pearl Jam an ideal choice to bring the history of the Spectrum alive one last time.