Music

Pearl Jam Are Carrying The Torch For The Entire Alt-Rock Generation

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

I’m not sure about the four other guys in the band, but I’m 99.9% certain that Eddie Vedder would bring Pearl Jam to play at Wrigley Field in Chicago every summer for the rest of his life if he could. The admiration and awe the frontman shows for this hallowed American institution during his time spent onstage is unmistakable. You can feel it when he sings while wearing an Anthony Rizzo jersey, which he later tossed to a fan on the front railing. You can feel it when he dials up footage of his beloved Cubs winning their first World Series in over a hundred years on the big screens on either side of the stage. You can feel it in the joyful way he sings “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie in the presence of the trophy itself. You feel it, most of all, when he wistfully tells the story of visiting this place for the first time in a game against the Pirates when he was “seven or eight years old,” recalling in perfect detail the exploits of Roberto Clemente on what would have been the departed right-fielder’s 84th birthday. This place means something to him in a deep and profound way.

Pearl Jam first came to the “Friendly Confines,” back in 2013, delivering one of the most infamous gigs of their career. A massive thunderstorm rolled through in the middle of the show, causing an hours-long delay that sent the band and their fans scurrying for cover. It was only because of a last-minute intervention by the owner of the Cubs and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel that they were allowed to go back on, ultimately playing until the wee hours of the morning. They returned in 2016 for a pair of fantastic gigs that were filmed and released as the concert film Let’s Play Two, and this year staged another pair of shows in part of a larger tour of renowned Major League ballparks that also included Fenway Park in Boston, and Safeco Field in their hometown of Seattle.

Pearl Jam have entered a rarefied zone as one of just a few rock bands on the planet capable of consistently selling out 40,000-seat venues for multiple nights on a set tour. The list of other acts capable of pulling this off is pretty damn slim and includes the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and The Rolling Stones, all ’60s and ’70s rock acts that came from a generation before them. Of their Gen-X contemporaries, no one really comes even close to touching this band’s drawing power. Smashing Pumpkins for instance, who are currently in the midst of a highly publicized reunion tour, are reportedly having difficulty selling out several arenas they’ve booked along the way. For what it’s worth, they’re putting on a tremendous show.

There are a multitude of reasons for this, of course, chief among them is Pearl Jam’s ability to deliver the goods. When you have a ticket to see this band, you know you can expect to see a roughly three-hour-long exhibition of unmitigated rock and roll excellence, but that’s it. You don’t know what they’re going to play, because the setlist changes every single night — sometimes it changes during the show itself with Vedder calling audibles on the fly — and you don’t know what kind of guests might appear, because everyone it seems, loves Pearl Jam at least a little bit. For the show at Wrigley, for instance, one-time NBA bad boy and current unofficial ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman came out in the middle of the set to deliver Vedder’s ukulele before the song “Sleeping By Myself.”

Vedder himself may not be the scaffold-climbing madman of old, but he’s still out here running from one end the stage to the other, jumping off drum risers, and picking fights with audience members, like the guy in the crowd who requested the band play “Black, Red Yellow,” on a sign that also referred to him as an “Evanston P*ssy.” Vedder responded, by noting they played the song here two years ago, and asked the sign holder where he’d been. Then he demanded Mike McCready to “Rip his head off with a little bit of guitar on this next one,” a request the fleet-fingered man holding the Fender Stratocaster was only happy to oblige, going absolutely nuts over an incendiary version of “Even Flow.”

The other main reason Pearl Jam can pack them in also comes down to simple staying power. While so many of the bands from their era have undergone numerous lineup changes, break-ups, extended hiatuses, and sadly, deaths, Pearl Jam have consistently stayed the course. There was certainly a brief lull in their popularity and cool factor for several years there around the beginning of the 2000s, but by the time they released their eponymous, avocado-adorned eighth album around the middle of the decade, they were pretty much back. Sadly, so many of the bands that Gen-X aged fans grew up loving during those halcyon days of the early ’90s are either gone, or are distinctly different than they were back then.

Seattle-contemporaries Alice In Chains are still around and kicking with a new album, Rainier Fog, on the way next week, but for a lot of people, as good as William DuVall is on the microphone, it’s just not the same without lead singer Layne Staley, who died back in 2002. Pearl Jam’s biggest contemporary, Nirvana, hasn’t been a going concern since Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. And then there’s Chris Cornell, the golden-voiced frontman of Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple Of The Dog — the latter group counted the entire lineup of Pearl Jam as members in one form or another — who sadly took his own life after a gig in Detroit just last year.

Cornell’s presence was the one most deeply felt during Pearl Jam’s visit to Wrigley. Much of the music that was played over the PA system before the band made their entrance, was written or performed by the departed singer, including his last single “The Promise.” The very appearance of Soundgarden’s brutal engine and one of the most underrated drummers in all of rock, Matt Cameron, couldn’t help but make you think of him as well. Pearl Jam paid direct tribute to their friend by performing his solo song “Missing,” that he wrote for the Singles film soundtrack. Since it wasn’t something more recognizable like “Black Hole Sun” — which Guns ‘N’ Roses have lately been performing in his honor on the road — or a Temple Of The Dog cut like “Hunger Strike,” or “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” some folks may have missed the poignancy of what was happening. But for those that recognized it, like myself, it was a heavy moment.

The more overt tribute was made to Tom Petty, who played a fantastic show at Wrigley just the year before. Vedder must have been in attendance that night in 2017, because while sitting onstage by himself in the middle of the evening, he alluded to Petty’s performance, saying, “I know he had a great time when he played here last summer,” adding. “As much as he was hurting, that last tour meant a lot to him.” Then he revealed that the Telecaster sitting on his lap was a gift from the departed leader of the Heartbreakers, before asking us to all pull out our phones and shine a light for Tom to “get him to come back and visit” while he played an incredibly moving cover of “Won’t Back Down.”

Pearl Jam haven’t put out an album of new music in five years, and while there have been rumblings that that drought of fresh material might end sometime in the near future, it’s done nothing to detract from their ability to fill seats. For many, they are the very epitome of ’90s alt-rock. A towering, living symbol of a bygone era. But that doesn’t mean they’re any kind of museum piece. Pearl Jam are as vital a performing rock band as any other in the world, and have cultivated a Grateful Dead-like fanbase. The kind that’s slavishly devoted to following them from gig to gig, cataloging each performance, noting every song they’ve personally witnessed, and praying tonight will be the night they play that one, decades-old deep cut that only the hardest of hardcore fans would recognize. Two nights after the show I caught, again at Wrigley, they performed the Ten album outtake “Evil Little Goat” for the first time ever.

“The least we can do to show our appreciation for you guys,” Vedder said in the first hour of the concert, “Is to give one of the best shows of our lives.” Whether they lived up to that promise, is entirely subjective, but I can tell you with absolute conviction that it was pretty damn excellent. The savagery with which they ripped into “Alive,” “Rearviewmirror,” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World,” that sent quite a few of the more inebriated attendees surging out onto the field or dancing on the roofs of the dugouts, will stick with me for a long, long time. Any night Pearl Jam takes the stage could become one of the greatest nights of your entire life. It’s a well-earned reputation, but a heavy burden to expect them to live up to. That they’re still trying nearly three decades later is a testament to their greatness.

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