Pearl Jam Rocked This Longtime Skeptic Into Submission Last Night
Last night's Xcel show proved they will rock whether or not you're a believer.
1:52 PM CDT on September 1, 2023
A Pearl Jam concert is for Pearl Jam fans, and not in the way all concerts are for fans. A Pearl Jam concert isn’t even particularly for the kind of fan who’s like, “Oh, I guess this show is going to start with the band seated on stools for a somber, bluesy take on the Vs. album track ‘Indifference,’” A Pearl Jam concert is for fans who pump their fists and exclaim “Yes! I can’t believe this show is going to start with the band seated on stools for a somber, bluesy take on the Vs. album track ‘Indifference!’”
I have far fewer strong opinions about Pearl Jam than a man of my age is expected to, and their two-night, tour-opening stand at the Xcel Energy Center presented itself as a good opportunity to remedy that and take a (clears throat ostentatiously) firm critical stance on the most significant rock band to survive the '90s besides maybe Green Day (and no, not Smashing Pumpkins). Why had I postponed this day of reckoning? Was I hiding from something? From myself? Was I, as my peers and I were so often accused of back in the day, slacking?
I was never dumb enough to camp with the jerks who derided Pearl Jam as the “jock” alternative to Nirvana, let alone the indie lifers who considered even signing to Matador an unprincipled move. (Apologies for dredging up the musical controversies of a dumb and bygone age, but nobody said evaluating a band’s living legacy would be pretty.) A group that never seemed slightly tempted to become Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam was clearly on the side of the angels even before they took on Ticketmaster. And their commercially successful earnestness remains the perfect riposte to anyone who claims that "Generation X" subsisted on pure "irony" throughout "the '90s."
But tastes are tastes: Their shaggy riffs didn’t slice with the sharper edge I preferred and Eddie Vedder’s enveloping growl-to-mewl stewed in its agony rather than lashing out with the pained precision I could use emotionally. In short, Pearl Jam were just not my guys.
And yet, when the riff that announced “Even Flow” kicked in late night, I was placed in instant communion with my 22-year-old self, flooded with memories of breaking up at Lollapalooza with the girl I’d met during a Rock the Vote event earlier that summer. OK, no, none of that really happened of course. But I was brought back to a time when, you know, it could have happened, in the same way Bill Clinton passing a healthcare plan “could have” happened.
Such rocking moments were some ways off from the show’s opening though. In case I didn’t make it quite clear enough earlier, the show did in fact start with the band seated on stools for a somber, bluesy take on the Vs. album track “Indifference.” The mellow, introductory portion of the evening continued with the new song, “Buckle Up” and the No Code ballad “Sometimes.” In short, Pearl Jam was opening with the part of the show where casual fans tend to dash off for a beer or a whiz, and I don’t mean that as an insult. Those are the parts of a show diehards cherish, after all.
Personally, I welcomed not being personally welcomed to Pearl Jam’s world. This wasn’t the prickly take-it-or-leave it-ness that a band like (sorry to mention them again but) Nirvana foisted on its fans to demonstrate a resistance to fame, but a display of intimacy to those who already felt intimate with the band. It also worked as a slow build, the aching “Wishlist” from 1998’s Yield leading into the sprawling yet dramatic “Black,” from their colossal debut, Ten. By the time I stopped to wonder if I was enjoying the show—not coincidentally during one of the band’s new songs, “Seven O’Clock”—we were already about 45 minutes in.
Guitarist Mike McCready was the first on his feet when it came time to kick away the stools, standing even before the end of “Black,” and watching him roam about his quadrant of the stage for the rest of the night I was surprised they’d been able to keep him on his butt for so long. He can roam as a soloist as well—his playing stood out more prominently when he was prising dissonance from his bent strings than when his fingers raced along the fretboard in flurries of difficult hammer-ons, though the latter flights of technique were often an effective simultaneous counterpoint to Vedder’s vocals.
His charisma undimmed, Vedder was an amiable if at times rambly host. His face grown a little puffy with time (whose hasn’t?) but with still piercing blue eyes (and weirdly reminiscent of his friend, Norm McDonald), he remains the surfer dude whose limitless angst roils beneath a placid surface. He told a story about singing in the shower in his hotel, hearing a voice from another room, and realizing someone was harmonizing with him. And it turned out to be Simon LeBon! Except that was a lie! The one true part: LeBon and the rest of Duran Duran, who at that same moment offered a different form of nostalgia for my age cohort over the State Fair, were staying at Pearl Jam’s hotel.
Vedder mentioned that he’d rewatched the band’s MTV Unplugged show, at the urging of his wife and daughters. (I wonder if they ever say “don’t call me daughter” to him when they’re mad. I would!) He introduced “one of my all time favorite Twins,” Justin Morneau, who was in the stands, and during the encore even wore a Twins helmet he’d been given. He celebrated the fact that bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard had been playing in bands together for “39.9 years.” In short, his banter was a little backward-glancing, but not imprisoned in the past.
A Pearl Jam show is retrospective by default—they’ve only released four albums over the past 20 years. (The last I put in any time with was 2002’s Riot Act, which I bring up only so I can mention that the review copy I was sent was encased in a Discman that was glued shut so I couldn’t leak it online.) But they did play four tracks from Gigaton—"our ‘new’ album, which came out two and half years ago,” as Vedder referred to it—highlighted by the nearly Talking Headsy funk of “Dance of the Clairvoyants.”
Pearl Jam’s setlist, which changes nightly, is wide-ranging, treating hits and buried treasures with equal love—surely some were thrilled to hear “Insignificance,” a song they hadn’t played in seven years. Again, tastes are tastes, and the punkier they got the more I perked up, especially for “Mind Your Manners,” as close as they’ll ever come to Motörhead. But the band is hardly averse to delivering the ’90s classics that not even the diehards would turn their noses up at. Vedder introduced “State of Love and Trust” (from the Singles soundtrack) by saying it was one of the songs they’d played at their first show in Minneapolis, at First Ave.
By the time the band closed their main set with “Porch,” I had surrendered to the fact that the peak moments on Ten are just as wrenching and exhilarating whether you believe or not. And that’s Pearl Jam’s strength as a live band as well. Whem McCready indulged in dueling solos with organist Boom Gaspar or Vedder tossed tambourines to the crowd, I though of the Who (probably not an especially fashionable influence these days, but fuck fashion). Pearl Jam’s epic psychodramas are murkier, and their impulse is to barrel through frustrations rather than to transcend. But they share the need to balance the bracing turmoil of their anthems with the cornball elements that make a rock show a meaningful spectacle. Vedder even twirled his mic by its chord à la Daltrey.
The encore, which stretched out over a half hour, included two covers. Vedder dedicated a solo acoustic take on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” to a fan whose wife had recently died, but only after his longest introductory digression of the night. A story about how Stone Gossard and Petty had been smoking weed (which Vedder calls “pot” just like me because we’re both old) turned into a disquisition on marijuana in general. This is a Pearl Jam show, after all. What’s the rush?
The band’s version of Victoria Williams’ “Crazy Mary,” long a live staple, was more to my liking, because the folk-rock eccentric Williams is more in danger of being forgotten than Petty is. (Check her out, Big Thief fans.) Pearl Jam also turned its back on much of the arena to perform ”Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” for the folks seated behind the stage.
“Alive” was inevitable, and so was the crowd response. I don’t know how much 58-year-old Eddie Vedder thinks about his dead peers from the early alt-rock era—probably not as much as rock critics, ever in search of a grand narrative, insisted he did after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. But in his introduction to “Wildflowers,” he did discuss the flood of musical deaths in 2016, while also mourning Sinead O’Connor and Robbie Robertson. And earlier mentions of California’s recent hurricane/earthquake double whammy and the wildfires on Maui (a longtime Vedder haunt) lent the night an undercurrent of mortality. So yeah, we’re still alive. Time strips away the lyrical ambiguities of all classic songs, leaving only the core nugget of resonance for those who sing along. And damn right it means something more when your contemporaries start to die.
The show, already passing the two-hour mark, could have ended there, but part of their gratuitous charm is that Pearl Jam always does a little too much, Instead, with the house lights up, McCready launched fluidly into the Hendrixite guitar intro of the encore-capping “Yellow Ledbetter.”
Decades ago, in an era as justifiably skeptical about stardom as our current age is dangerously credulous, Pearl Jam grappled with the question of whether you could be a principled arena rock band. By decade’s end, they’d reached a kind of moral stalemate with the commercial forces they’d battled, emerging as decent guys but not victors. In the years since they’ve proven that you could at least be an independent band without sacrificing your need for community, gathering a cult large enough to fill a hockey arena and celebrating spontaneity without being a dick about it. In America, after all, independence is often the closest thing we have to a moral principle.
Given to Fly
Mind Your Manners
Dance of the Clairvoyants
Love Boat Captain
State of Love and Trust
Wildflowers (Tom Petty cover)
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Crazy Mary (Victoria Williams cover)
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