My first arena concert was Pearl Jam at the Forum in Los Angeles, on their Yield tour in 1998. Decades later, there are still things that stand out from that massive live show: my dad waiting in the parking lot the entire time with a book, my first time smelling marijuana smoke wafting in a crowd, Johnny Ramone joining the band for a ripping cover of “The KKK Took My Baby Away” during the encore. I now admittedly listen to the band less than I did in my youth, but at that time, Pearl Jam was a gateway to a musical education that couldn’t be harnessed in rock magazines and wasn’t yet available on the internet.
But even that sells them a bit short. It wasn’t just music that Pearl Jam introduced me and many others to, through both the songs they covered that could be found on expensive bootleg CDs at the local swap meet and their often inspired choices of tour support. Pearl Jam was also providing lessons in social consciousness that were not readily available in religious schools or conservative homes. Pearl Jam made it seem cool to care about things like women’s rights and the freedom of choice. They stood up to big corporations in a time when few others would, and held institutions like the Grammys and MTV at an arm’s length with healthy skepticism. For young people and teens in the ’90s, Pearl Jam took the power that fame gave them with the utmost seriousness and maintained a level of sincerity that could provide a roadmap to being a thoughtful adult. Such forward-thinking rock stardom is often credited to their misdiagnosed “rivals” Nirvana, but Pearl Jam proved equally to be on the right side of history, even if many mocked them for it at the time.
After more than 30 years as a unit, the Seattle five-piece has successfully transitioned from the biggest band in the world to a more comfortable place as a legacy artist still driven by their artistic whims. The pressure of relevance that they were often saddled with into the aughts has largely faded away, and instead they can revel in their long-term friendship, the incredible community they’ve built around them, and stand as totems for longevity and health in the musical space. Sure, it might seem strange to some that the same guy who used to scale lighting rigs and hurl his body into the audience is now hosting an Orange County beach event for the whole family, called Ohana Festival. As another aging rock star once said, “The kids at the show will have kids of their own, their singalong songs will be our scriptures.”
Pearl Jam changes by not changing, and even in Ohana Festival’s fifth year, the laidback atmosphere still retains the core values that the band emerged with. On Saturday’s bill, you could arrive and watch longtime PJ associate Sleater-Kinney, Margo Price, and Brandi Carlile, and realize you’d be hard-pressed to find as many female voices on festival stages elsewhere in the country. It’s that kind of booking that allows frontman Eddie Vedder to address the crowd — condemning Texas’ abortion band, advocating for women’s agency, and noting that some of the best sets of the event’s five days came from women — without seeming like a hypocrite. Saying the right thing from the stage is one thing, but putting that into practice from a place of power is another.
Other things about Pearl Jam remain consistent as well. The band sounds AND looks great. Vedder can still hit all the necessary shouts, growls, and hoots that fans hope for, while guitarist Mike McCready still relishes the chance to hold the spotlight for five minutes in the middle of “Porch” or “Even Flow.” They still have one of the best drummers in rock history in Matt Cameron (who played with five different artists on Saturday), while Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard shine in their respective roles, their initial Seattle relationship now spanning 38 years and providing a firm foundation for the band to exist. And, I only mention that they look great because, it makes ME feel better and less old when a band keeps it tight. With all the members in their mid-50s, they still move around with youthful exuberance that belies their age. For an audience aging with them, it’s an invitation to feel young again for a couple hours that we gladly accepted.
But maybe the aspect of Pearl Jam that remains least mutable is in the catharsis they provide. Vedder and his band were equally indebted to both punk and classic rock in their inception, and as they grew to stadiums and beyond, they never forgot the how vital the big gestures from the latter could be. There is power in intimacy, in the small sweaty clubs and DIY basements, of feeling like you belong somewhere. But nothing quite means the same things as being among tens of thousands of likeminded individuals, everyone there for the same reason, especially after a couple years of not going out much at all.
Vedder noted that for many of the bands that took the stage over Ohana’s two weekends, which also included Beck, Maggie Rogers, Sharon Van Etten, Lord Huron, My Morning Jacket and many more, were celebrating their first live shows since the pandemic. For the audience, it was surely the same thing. A song like “Alive,” which Vedder deftly switched from the singular “I” to the plural “We” for its final chorus, can take on new meaning as hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths grow daily. “Porch,” a song during which Vedder famously scrawled pro-choice messaging on himself while performing their MTV Unplugged in 1992, can hold a legacy from that moment, even as Vedder frustratedly admitted that it blows his mind that we still have to advocate for what should be common sense human rights in 2021. And then there is “Rockin’ In The Free World,” a song as subversive as “Born In The USA,” that saw the band jamming with Sleater-Kinney, Carlile, Taylor Hakwins, Chad Smith, and many others for a huge finale. Everyone’s smile was contagoeus as they crowded the stage for the Neil Young cover, live music’s power as palpable as ever, as the tragedy currently plaguing the world and all its social injustices faded away for just a moment of communal bliss. It’s safe to say that both musicians and fans will never take this privilege for granted again.
Check out some photos from the event below. Brandi Carlile celebrated with the release of In These Silent Days with a firecracker of a set that included a showstopping opening of “Pride & Joy” as well as a cover of Soundgarden’s Searching With My Good Eye Closed backed by McCready and Cameron. Sleater-Kinney and Margo Price also warmed up the crowd with strong sets, while Pearl Jam’s headlining performance found the band’s newer songs from last year’s Gigaton able to stand up to some fan-favorite hits and deep cuts, including “Last Exit,” “Lukin,” “Wishlist,” “Not For You,” and “Smile.” Vedder also hinted that Ohana would return for a 6th year in 2022. We’d go back in a second.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.