By: Bronson Arroyo
August 5, 2016 marks one of the greatest days of my life, one which has been filled with great things. I’ve played baseball and I’ve played music, but the collision of life-long dreams and places made this experience altogether incredible.
To know how much playing “Black” in Fenway Park with Pearl Jam meant to me, we have to go back to my childhood and talk about how baseball, the Boston Red Sox, and Pearl Jam became some of the most powerful forces in my life.
My love for the game started as a five-year-old kid throwing a ball in the backyard with my father. Later, I could often be found tossing a tennis ball off the wall over and over, imagining it was the final out of a World Series victory.
In 1995, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted me in the third round, and I made my major league debut with them in 2000. Three years later, I was picked up off the waiver wire by Theo Epstein and the Red Sox. I had never played in a stadium like Fenway before. Here, the fans made me feel the rich history of its roots. They made me live it. They made me love it.
The first time I walked onto that hallowed ground I was met with the mid-game buzzing you’d hear in the fifth inning of any other stadium…but it was forty five minutes before game time! I knew in that moment that I was somewhere special, but had no idea how much Fenway Park would be a part of my life forever.
My first year with the Red Sox closed with our epic game-seven loss to the Yankees, with Aaron Boone’s game winning homer, and the next year felt remarkably similar. We had a great regular season battle with the Yankees for the division and another playoff series looking like they would eliminate us from the post-season. Then it happened. Down three games to one, we pulled out four straight victories to finally topple the Yanks with a feat never before or since done in the history of the game. We went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in four straight, and became the first World Series champions in a Red Sox uniform since 1918.
In late 1991 as I was getting ready for my freshman year of high school, Pearl Jam entered my life. The Seattle scene was everywhere, but this album made an instant impact on me. I had been listening to Creedence Clearwater, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Billy Joel, and anything else the “oldies” stations were playing for a decade while lifting weights in the gym with my father. I enjoyed those artists, but there was something about the rock coming out of Seattle, and Pearl Jam’s Ten record was cream of the crop for me. It had a way of uplifting me and giving me energy as the songs were belted out at the top of Eddie Vedder’s lungs like he was purging all of his demons onto the album. At the same time, I thought they were some of most beautiful melodies ever penned. The story of “Black,” that of a love gone bad, had no obvious representation in my life, but it drew me in like the earth to the sun. It was, and is to this day, my favorite song of all time.
“Black” has made its way like a thread through my life from 1991 to present day. I’ve played it and sung it hundreds of times growing up. In 2003, I was being honored with an award in Boston and happened to hear about Peter Gammons’ and Theo Epstein’s Hot Stove Cool Music gig at the Paradise. I was wandering backstage when Peter said he heard that I played guitar and wondered if I wanted to play and sing one song. I said I would love to and didn’t even have to think about what I might play. This was my first public jam and it had to be “Black.”
Nine years later, in 2012, I went to see a Vedder solo show in Orlando and after a ninety minute first act, culminating in a killer version of “Porch,” Eddie came back to the stage to tell the audience that a friend was in the crowd, that he pitches for the Cincinnati Reds, and that his name is Bronson Arroyo. “Why don’t you come on up to the stage?” he asked. I shimmied out of my seat like I was in a movie theater going to the bathroom, trying not to disturb the folks around me and made my way to the stage. Eddie stepped away from the microphone and whispered in my ear, “Do you know how to play ‘Black?’” I answered yes, he handed me his acoustic guitar, and proceeded to tell the crowd a story about me that he had read in the newspaper. I had played the song in a bar weeks earlier in Cincinnati and now we would play for the crowd completely unrehearsed. The song came out beautifully, and now looking back, it was a good warm-up for the Fenway show, four years later.
Photo courtesy of Bronson Arroyo
August 5, 2016.
I finished my day in the rookie league with the Washington Nationals and jumped on a plane to Boston. I had sent a text to Eddie that I would be attending and I was pumped to see the greatest show on earth in the monastery that I had helped remodel. He replied with excitement as well and a simple “Black”??? I of course accepted and went to the park a couple hours early to make sure it would go off smoothly. I felt immediately at home in the locker room that I knew so well, a nice contrast to the nerves that would soon come from playing with my heroes. The band rolled in a bit later and we ended up upstairs in the same kitchen area where I had eaten a hamburger most games in the 5th inning with teammates Tim Wakefield and Curt Schilling throughout 2004 and 2005. This time I found myself bent down on one knee next to Stone Gossard, Eddie Vedder playing drums, Mike McCready, and Jeff Ament. My sixteen year old self could and often did imagine pitching in the World Series. But this? No way.
We ran through the song once, it sounded great, and I left the band to get ready for the show. I was a bit hyped and nervous as I stood side stage prior to “Black.” I spent the moments before playing along during “I Am Mine,” which got my fingers loose and channeled my anticipation. I kept telling myself to try and be present tense in this moment as it could possibly be the last time I’d ever perform for the Boston faithful in Fenway and most likely the only time with Pearl Jam. I couldn’t wait to play and I knew this would be the most comfortable I’d ever be on a stage: one, because the band is so good and I’d really just be hiding behind Stone as we were basically playing the same parts, and secondly, because I was in my home in Boston. As I came on the stage, Stone quickly showed me which amp would be connected to my guitar, and off we went. The song developed and I tried my best to put my mind at a camp fire of friends and play and enjoy the song as if I were still in the crowd. I wanted to be completely submersed in the unfolding magic.
Playing with Pearl Jam in Fenway was, in some way, very similar to pitching there, and some ways very different. The level of energy coming off the crowd that you can use and harness as your own felt very familiar. Then there’s the realization that you have to find a way to be comfortable with all those eyes on you. Finally, the admiration of the Fenway fans after a job well done is second to none. The difference for me was there was a lot less stress knowing that the song couldn’t bomb. There was no way to take that opportunity and have it be equal to a five run first inning in a playoff game. Also, the fans at a baseball game seem to sit on the fence waiting and hoping to cheer for you, but also can quickly turn and boo just as loud without hesitation when things go bad. I felt like it was going to be a winning performance without the fear of boos and that the game was won before it even started.
Hands down the best part of the experience was the subtle look Eddie gave me and I knew that was a cue to sing the high backup vocal on Stone’s mic. Stone had told me earlier they hadn’t sang that part much the past 20 years. In preparation, my mind went to their MTV Unplugged rendition. Suddenly, the song was building. I’m singing along already and Eddie looked over at me with inviting eyes and body language that told me he wanted me to sing that part. In that moment, I felt like I was able to make an impact on the song a bit more than just doubling the rhythm. It just doesn’t get much better than that, but still, they found a way to extend the song, light up Fenway with forty thousand phone lights, and really let me soak up one of the greatest experiences of my life.
– Bronson Arroyo
in collaboration with/produced by: Jeff Gorra. Orginally posted on Alternative Nation
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