Music

Pearl Jam 20 (Part 2)

Alpine Music Valley Theatre - Live in East Troy, WI

Brian Ahnmark
Neil Young taught us that it's better to burn out than it is to rust – or to fade away.

Of course, Neil hasn't burned out, rusted or faded away. And that is precisely the legacy that he passed down to his adopted sons in Pearl Jam.

Whatever cobwebs Pearl Jam accumulated during a recent stage hiatus emerged on Saturday night during a loose, playful headlining slot at the PJ 20 festival, a weekend celebration of the band's 20-year anniversary. But the muffed lyrics and shaky chord progressions were washed away by Saturday’s rain storms, and on Sunday – a clear, crisp September evening – a focused, hungry Pearl Jam went for the kill.

There would be no misfires on this night.

As expected, the setlist featured a masterful mixture of rarities, dark horses and classics, including The Big Four from debut album Ten. All five songwriters in the band were recognized within the first six songs; Stone Gossard (“Wash”), Matt Cameron (“The Fixer”), Eddie Vedder (“Severed Hand” and “All Night”), Mike McCready (“Given to Fly”) and Jeff Ament (“Pilate”). It was a detail likely unnoticed by the crowd, but a touching gesture nonetheless between the longtime brothers-in-arms.

Whereas Saturday felt like an informal rehearsal, Sunday was searing and sharp – and not a bit safe. Familiar favorites like “Daughter” elicited roars, but oddballs like “Leatherman” and “Satan’s Bed” were also rapturously received. On “Satan’s Bed,” Vedder pumped a fist to conduct the band from chorus to verse, a vintage example of the sneering risk-reward attitude that makes a Pearl Jam show such an unpredictable thrill to behold.

They got by with a little help from their friends. Liam Finn joined Vedder at the mic for the barnburner “Habit” from 1996’s No Code. Vedder acknowledged that performing the song live usually leaves him with “no gas left in the tank.” Dhani Harrison (George’s son) played guitar on a singalong rendition of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” and John Doe joined Pearl Jam for a cover version of his own “New World.” Vedder also thanked Young Neil for providing guidance over the years, and expressed gratitude toward producer Brendan O’Brien for his work on the band’s records – “the good ones,” Vedder specified.

After slaying with “Even Flow,” “Jeremy” and “Black” in the first set, Vedder took the stage alone to debut a new, untitled acoustic song. He had written the tune that very weekend, inspired by the festival atmosphere. The refrain, “I’m so glad we made it ‘til when it all got good,” was an all-inclusive embrace for the entire Pearl Jam community.

It was only fitting that an amusing bit of inter-band conflict would arise shortly thereafter. As Vedder explained, the band was trying to convince Gossard to throw one of his songs into the mix. But Gossard declined, arguing instead in favor of a cover – “A much better song,” he said. The crowd booed lustily, and when Gossard attempted to begin the cover song, the rest of the band refused to play along. A visibly irritated Gossard attempt to tune his guitar, as Vedder playfully announced the band’s demise: “Well, it’s been a great 20 years!” Eventually, Gossard tore into the smoldering “No Way” from 1998’s Yield. He got eat his cake, as well, following up with “Public Image” by Public Image Limited.

The energy level was already swollen to a fever pitch as Pearl Jam shredded “Spin the Black Circle” to bits, McCready and Ament sprinting in giant circles around the stage. But the dizzying electricity amplified ten-fold as Vedder again welcomed Chris Cornell to the stage, marking consecutive nights of Temple of the Dog reunions (The only improvement upon a once-in-a-lifetime event? A twice-in-a-lifetime event). “Hunger Strike” and “Reach Down” were the only repeated numbers during the two Pearl Jam/TOTD sets, although Temple of the Dog also treated fans to “Call Me a Dog” and “All Night Thing.”

The sum was overwhelming, almost too much to bear. As Pearl Jam geared up for a final encore, incredibly, their vibrant crackle devoured the last gasps from 40,000-strong, waving a collective white flag.

First came “Alive,” Gossard and McCready at their finest, the masses thrusting arms and chanting in unison.

Next came “Rockin’ in the Free World” in tribute to Father Neil, friends and family joining the band onstage.

And finally, “Yellow Ledbetter” with the house lights on, a battered swarm of people too exhausted to do anything but sway arm-in-arm.

Thirty-three songs. Three-and-a-half hours. And indisputable proof that as far as Pearl Jam is concerned, there will be no burn out. There will be no rust. There will be no fade away.

Here’s to another 20 years.

Setlist

Wash
The Fixer
Severed Hand
All Night
Given to Fly
Pilate
Love Boat Captain
Habit
Even Flow
Daughter
Leatherman
Red Mosquito
Satan's Bed
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Unthought Known
New World (John Doe cover)
Black
Jeremy

Encore One

Acoustic New Song
Just Breathe
Nothingman
No Way
Public Image
Smile
Spin the Black Circle
Hunger Strike
Call Me a Dog
All Night Thing
Reach Down
Sonic Reducer

Encore Two

Alive
Rockin' in the Free World
Yellow Ledbetter