Pearl Jam concerts are different. It's not just a bunch of guys on stage cranking out rock songs; even in Jobing.com Arena, it's an intimate, more personal affair. Artists talk about the energy that flows between audience and stage, and that's what's so obvious here. The bands cares; the fans care.
Maybe too much, actually -- it was a little scary, the way audience members raised their hands in unison (without prompting) or sang verses while frontman Eddie Vedder watched and smiled.
Vedder, of course, knew it was coming. Such is the relationship the band has fostered with its fans over the years. Think about it: There are only two bands garnering enough support to have their own Sirius XM radio station: The Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam.
Perhaps this is why Pearl Jam played for a hair beyond three hours on this night, even breaking out some acoustic treats "for the more serious collectors," as Vedder put it. Whatever the reason, it's unlikely anyone in the house left disappointed.
It had been 10 years since Pearl Jam played Phoenix, and it was clear the band was prepared to make up for lost time, running thought a set list heavy on classics as well as the new album, Lightning Bolt. Like a pot coming to boil, the intensity was a slow build, opening with the heavy trilogy of "Long Road," Release," and "Low Light" before cutting loose with a truly psychedelic cover of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive."
This pattern was consistent all evening -- cool it down for a couple of numbers before exploding again so guitarist Mike McCready could circle the stage like a lost punk looking for a mosh pit while bassist Jeff Ament did his best Pete Townshend leaps and Matt Cameron hit his drums with fabled ferocity. Vedder, of course, was at the front of it all, standing on the stage monitors, gesturing to the crowd, playing the occasional guitar, or rambling on about something or other, but always putting his all into each song.
Watching Pearl Jam -- which, not in the least, also includes low-key guitarist Stone Gossard -- perform for the seventh time, it's hard to believe these are the scruffy punks I first encountered during their debut tour and on subsequent Lollapalooza tours.
Back then, a long-haired Vedder crowd-surfed and climbed stage curtains while the band cranked out blistering sets composed of their debut Ten, and select covers. It was all energy and angst. Tonight by comparison was filled with the cool composure of a band well in control of its destiny, but clearly one also intent on having a lot of fun.
Yet, while other bands of the grunge era fell by the wayside, Pearl Jam evolved, altering their rock focus but never losing the edge that defined them. Many of the new songs, such as "Sirens" and "Getaway," simmered with a controlled sonic intensity buoyed with Vedder's emotional release. Pearl Jam has never shied away from its punk rock roots, either. With great bursts of energy that sent the crowd into thrashing frenzies, the band unleashed both "Spin the Black Circle" and "Mind Your Manners" from the new disc.
The diverse set also featured such cuts as "Given to Fly," "Do the Evolution," "Go," and "Better Man," which was proceeded with a rambling dedication to Ament's parents, who were in the crowd. (The audience, as if on cue, sang the entire first verse, too.)
More than anything, however, it was the earlier material the audience clamored for. It's not hard to understand why -- even 22 years after Ten's release, the music remains vital and was performed with as much intensity as the first time. "Once," "Jeremy," and "Porch" filled this space. "Even Flow" might have been the best of the bunch, filled with driving guitar solos and stunning band interplay even though PearlJam.com notes this was the 743rd time the band has played it.
When the first 90 minutes ended -- a time when most bands call it a night -- things were just heating up. The band opened the first encore with a five-song, sit-down, mostly acoustic set beginning with "Bee Girl" and "Around the Bend" (the first live performance of the song since 2006), the new "Future Days," and "Hard to Imagine," before ending with "Footsteps."
Another half-dozen songs and 45 minutes later, the encore concluded with a screaming "Porch" that would have satisfied most audiences.
It wasn't enough for the fans, or the band, it seemed, as Pearl Jam returned for another five songs. "It's been 10 years -- we can't just leave like that," Vedder said upon his return. "Let's keep playing -- fuck it."
The appreciative audience helped sing, shout, and shake where they could to keep the festive atmosphere alive. Strangely, during the final kick-ass eruption that is "Alive," the venue lights came on. It seemed like an intentional act designed to bring everyone in the house together. That is, until Vedder cursed the curfew law that shuts down large concerts halls at 11.
Undaunted, Vedder brought former Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young guitarist Nils Lofgren to the stage for a completely gonzo, venue-shaking "Rockin' in the Free World." It was performed with the lights on, of course, and in this case, the song was the perfect fitting statement for a band that's gone it's own way for years. Yes, curfew be damned.
A quick "Indifference" brought a sense of calm and reflection to end a long evening connecting on a deeper level with one of the best bands out there today. The dazed looks on the faces exiting the venue was proof enough.
Critics Notebook: Last Night: Pearl Jam Personal bias: A fan from the day a Sony Records rep walked into the record store I was working at and handed me a CD-R of "this new band called Pearl Jam. They're gonna be huge." He was right, of course. The crowd: Pearl Jam brings in a mix from young kids (caught on video dancing on parent's shoulders) to Ament's parents, married for 52 years. "Everyone" was represented. Random Notebook Dump: Is that Vedder's third or fourth bottle of wine? Must be the latter, as he's getting hard to understand and monologues are getting longer, too. Overheard: Upon exiting, a voice in the air: "It was all I could have hoped for."
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Set list: Long Road Release Low Light Interstellar Overdrive (Pink Floyd cover) Corduroy Lightning Bolt Mind Your Manners Given to Fly Getaway Yellow Moon Even Flow Sirens Daughter > W.M.A. Wishlist Infallible Do the Evolution Once 1/2 Full Better Man Go Encore: Bee Girl Around the Bend Future Days Hard to Imagine Footsteps Jeremy Alone Down Unthought Known Porch Encore 2: Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town Spin the Black Circle Alive Rockin' in the Free World (Neil Young cover with Nils Lofgren) Indifference