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Where’s the music coming from?

See photos from the Pearl Jam concert

In a video held in high regard in Costa Rican lore, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder in 2007 speaks to an audience about protecting the environment. At the end of the speech, Vedder proposes a toast. From behind the podium, he reveals a bottle of Costa Rica’s Imperial beer and takes a swill. 

Pearl Jam fans in Costa Rica love that clip. They also rhapsodize about Vedder’s love of surfing and Costa Rica’s beaches. And yet Pearl Jam had never played a concert here.

In 20 years of existence, the most exciting show the band had given Costa Ricans was a shaky recording of Vedder swigging a brewski at an awards ceremony in California.  

Imperial Pearl Jam

The Imperial beer logo redesigned as a Pearl Jam souvenir.

Stefanie Campolo

That changed Sunday night when Pearl Jam gave likely the biggest concert in the country’s history at the new National Stadium in west San José. The national brewery sold souvenirs displaying Pearl Jam’s name emblazoned over the Imperial logo.

Don Stockwell, head of concert promoter RPMTV, said that when the band decided to embark on a Latin America tour, the group was “emphatic and categorical” on playing Costa Rica.

At the start of the show, an apologetic Vedder read notes in Spanish to an audience of more than 30,000. He told them: “I don’t know why we’ve never come to Costa Rica, but we’re very happy to be here. We left the best for last.”

Since 2010, Green Day, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Judas Priest, Slayer, Megadeth, Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus all made concert debuts in Costa Rica. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Aerosmith each made their second appearance after lengthy absences. 

Pearl Jam was the latest veteran group to express that sincere confusion about why it had taken so long to play Costa Rica.  

This epiphany by internationally famous bands has led to critics calling 2011 the best year in the country’s concert history. During the week of the Pearl Jam concert, promoters Evenpro, RPMTV’s primary rival, announced British star Elton John has his first-ever Costa Rican tour date slated for early 2012.   

Andrés Guanipa, executive director of the Venezuela-based Evenpro, attributes Costa Rica’s recent success to a fan base enthusiastic for live music. That culture has begun to overcome a long history of concert failures.

“I feel that 2012 is going to be a huge year for Costa Rica,” Guanipa said. “British and U.S. bands, legends of rock, will be putting Costa Rica on their international tours.”

Jamming in Costa Rica

Concert Industry

Diego Zúñiga, of San José, sets up the National Stadium for Pearl Jam on Sunday.

Stefanie Campolo

Before the Pearl Jam concert, Mexico City-based production manager Ricardo “Kanuto” Pacheco spoke in the wings of the National Stadium about putting on a show in Costa Rica. 

Pacheco started working with Stockwell’s Tropix II entertainment company (which merged with RPMTV in 2010) three years ago, and said the “whole spectrum” from concert logistics to hotel service has improved dramatically. 

Standing nearby, Stockwell, 41, an immense Costa Rican, greeted visitors with his expressive smile. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, his face conveyed utter exhaustion.

Four days before the Pearl Jam show, RPMTV began transforming the stadium into a concert venue for a farewell concert for local legends Malpaís, whose lead singer recently died of a heart attack. Pearl Jam management allowed the send-off to take place as long as on Saturday morning it looked like a concert had never happened the night before. At 5:30 a.m., Stockwell said workers had finished dismantling and cleaning up the stadium after a concert of 30,000-plus attendees. Pearl Jam’s equipment arrived at dawn. Time to rebuild.

Hours before showtime, Stockwell said his job was “putting out fires.” A bright orange hat shone like a siren above his head as he darted from one dilemma to the next.

Since the stadium’s inauguration last April, where a performance by Colombian pop star Shakira was marred by an electricity failure, nobody has quite figured out how to perfect turning a $100 million soccer pitch into a concert venue. Most of the half-dozen or so concerts have had problems like sound quality or seats with obstructed views. 

But these are workable problems compared to past big-time concert disasters. Selling tickets for concerts that never were booked. Permit issues. Cancellations as a result of safety issues. In 2009, the Health Ministry surprised thousands of fans waiting to see Mexican singer Vicente Fernández by shutting down the production hours before it was set to take place. 

In 2010, metal superstars Guns N’ Roses picked Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, north of San José, for an early summer tour date. Days before the show, the band’s diva-esque frontman, Axl Rose, declared that his crew had found safety issues with the stage. The show was canceled. The promoter’s website hasn’t had a new update since a post about “reimbursing tickets.”  

Stockwell recalls four generators blowing minutes before the start of an Aerosmith show in 2010, the first concert since the Guns N’ Roses disaster. The crew managed to solve the problem quickly. The performance was Aerosmith’s first in the country since 1994, a show where a 19-year-old was trampled to death.

Marc Anthony

Mark Anthony, the Puerto Rican pop singer best-known for the song “I Need to Know.” Photo courtesy of WikiCommons

Evenpro suffered a close call after an Iron Maiden concert in 2009 was almost suspended due to permit problems. 

So RPMTV and Evenpro have avoided reputation-damaging catastrophes, while shows like Colombia’s Aterciopelados and England’s Motörhead were cancelled in 2011. 

Black Line Productions (plenty of niche European metal bands), Mundoloco (Damian Marley) and Addictive Productions 4U (Juan Luis Guerra and Marc Anthony) also brought in successful acts this year.

A Tale of Two Concerts

The turning point in Costa Rica’s concert history came the same year as its biggest embarrassment. A month before the scheduled Guns N’ Roses show, Metallica played a sold-out show in Saprissa Stadium. The show, brought by Evenpro, was the largest in the country’s history. 

While waiting for the gates to open for Pearl Jam, Adrián Cubillo, 28, described the “Metallica phenomenon.” He called it a boom. Metallica enjoyed the show so much that they told all their colleagues that “Costa Rica vale la pena.” 

Costa Rica is worth it.

“Now what I’m waiting for is Metallica to play in this,” Cubillo added, gesturing toward the hulking National Stadium. 

Guanipa said Metallica spent time surfing and relaxing on the beach after the show. Just like the Red Hot Chili Peppers would do a year later, and what Pearl Jam’s members and their families are doing now.

Obstacles remain for even larger artists.

“Costa Ricans always talk of a U2 or Madonna concert,” Guanipa said. “It’s possible with the National Stadium, but still it’s not much closer to happening.”

Guanipa said he’d recommend Peru or Venezuela, two other countries where U2 has yet to play, before trying for Costa Rica. The country cannot handle a concert of that magnitude – emphasizing that one of the most important hindrances are taxes. 

The promoter explained how the government taxes 30.5 percent of every ticket sold, making it nearly impossible to afford megastars like U2.

Still, promoters insist 2012 will generate more international stars than this year. 

Stockwell called Pearl Jam “the most complicated show” he’s ever done. But the concert was no doubt a success. Images of Pearl Jam closing out the show with a second encore stick in Stockwell’s mind.

“Eddie Vedder was standing right over me, applauding the audience, bleeding from his left hand,” Stockwell said. “He looked down at me and winked, and I looked out at the audience and saw 30,000 people cheering and screaming.”

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