Pearl Jam delivers a knock-out show in first of two Los Angeles concerts: Review

Not only is Eddie Vedder Pearl Jam”s mesmerizing front man, on Saturday night (23)  at the first of the band”s two shows at Los Angeles Sports Arena, he was the audience”s protector-in- chief.

Four songs into the set, during crowd favorite “Corduroy,” Vedder noticed some disturbance in the first few rows of the pit. Though the band somehow never lost its stride or intensity he commanded that the woman causing the strife get out. After the song finished, he looked over the area like a benevolent dictator and saw the agitator was still there. The house lights went up. “We”re not fucking around here,” he said. “You had a chance to make friends with these people. You fucked it up. Go watch the show from over there,” he said gesturing to the sidelines.

It was endearing as it was startling. Pearl Jam and its fans have always had a tight connection, but as the band settles into its 20s -Vedder fondly recalled the last time the band played the Sports Arena in 1991, opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers- and its loyal audience grow older together, that sense of community seems somehow more precious. Stronger and yet more fragile at the same time.

It”s almost impossible now to bring up Pearl Jam without mentioning Vedder”s spirit animal, Bruce Springsteen. The two men are very close (check out their great live version of “Better Man” on YouTube from a few years back) and while Pearl Jam has always been a commanding live act over the 22 years I”ve seen them, the Boss”s influence has seemed to grow over the years from the care and attention paid to the crowd (sadly, the 2000 deadly Roskilde concert could also have plenty to do with that) and the duration of the the shows. Saturday”s show easily blew past the three-hour mark. Vedder even name checked Springsteen, who loves the decrepit, concrete Sports Arena, as the reason the band was playing there.

Despite its ability to fill arenas for two decades now, at its heart Pearl Jam remains a great club band but with better lighting and the tightness that only time and talent provide. They have, against the odds, retained a kinetic energy that makes them still seem fresh and somehow keeps even old chestnuts like “Jeremy,” delivered here in a more foreboding atmospheric version than on record, interesting.

Opening with “Pendulum,” from the band”s new chart topper, “Lightning Bolt,” Pearl Jam agilely slide from one song to the next. While Vedder remained largely static veering from his trademark two-fisted microphone grip to awkwardly dancing when he was not singing, the other members were almost constantly in motion with guitarist Mike McCready and bassist Jeff Ament literally running circles around each other during “Spin the Black Circle,” and Stone Gossard putting his whole body into his guitar solo during a erupting “Do the Evolution.”

A few songs after dedicating a lovely, mournful “Garden” to Tim Robbins, Vedder turned reflective. “2013”s been a real fucking son of a bitch,” he said. “If you avoided tragedies, you should be very grateful, but you should know you”re probably next.” He took the time to point out fans who had crossed continents to be at the show, including their friend Rob from the Philippines, as Vedder pledged that money from the Los Angeles shows, as well as the San Diego show on Nov. 22, were going back with Rob for Typhoon Haiyan relief. He elliptically also thanked “some very good doctor friends who have given us hope in very dire times,” before launching into, appropriately enough, an elegiac version of “Sirens.”

The 20-song main set closed with an intense “Rearviewmirror” that built and built until it felt like it spilled over into every corner of the Sports Arena.

For the first encore, the band members sat down for the first time all evening (other than, of course, drummer Matt Cameron), for a strong 8-song mini-set that included a haunting “Footsteps,” rarity “All or None” (played as an audible after Vedder saw it on a sign a fan held up), and a spirited cover of the Ramones” “I Believe in Miracles.”

By the time they closed with “Porch,” it seemed that the show was destined to be done as it was approaching 11 p.m., but, remarkably, they returned for a second encore with tremendous verve and energy. Vedder, by now well lubricated from his constant sipping from at least one bottle of wine, and the band tore into ferocious versions of “Unknown Thought,” “Black” (McCready”s solo was as emotionally piercing as always), “Alive” and a very lively cover of The Who”s “Baba O”Riley” with Ament giving his best Pete Townshend-like leap at the end as Vedder passed out the two tambourines he”d been bashing. The show concluded with a rambunctious “Indifference.” It was hard to tell who was more exhausted, the band or the fans… but everyone was smiling.