Show Review

Pearl Jam 20 (Part 1)

Alpine Valley Music Theatre - East Troy, WI

Brian Ahnmark
How would you celebrate your 20th anniversary? An intimate candle-lit dinner, perhaps?

How about inviting 40,000 of your friends to a two-day music festival that you curated, featuring hand-picked supporting acts, a museum in your honor, and a pair of headlining slots that cement your status as one of the premier rock bands of any generation?

For all intents and purposes, 2011 has become The Year of Pearl Jam. Marking the 20th anniversary of the release of watershed debut album Ten, Pearl Jam has rewarded fans with a new live album, remastered editions of classic records Vs. and Vitalogy, a documentary film directed by Cameron Crowe, and a Labor Day weekend music festival. Oh yeah, and the band is also hard at work on a brand new album.

Precious few rock bands survive 20 years together, let alone maintain vibrancy and relevancy for those two decades. That's why the PJ 20 music festival was no cash-grab, trotting-out-the-greatest-hits, old-timers' retrospective. It was a triumphant reminder of the unifying spirit of music. And for two nights, at least, it was the Fountain of Youth.

The festival was hosted at the revered Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. The lush, isolated venue felt light years removed from civilization – a fitting destination for a ferociously independent band and an equally ardent tribe of 40,000 followers. The supporting acts included Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age and The Strokes, with Pearl Jam headlining both Saturday and Sunday nights. The CliffsNotes end result of the Pearl Jam slots: 61 songs and six hours of music, with wildly erratic setlists delving into the deepest realms of the band's catalog.

Pearl Jam remains the great live band on Earth, in part because of their immortal energy, but also because of their astonishing grasp of their own material. For 20 years, fans have come to expect one thing at a Pearl Jam show: The unexpected. There will be hits, for sure, but also deep cuts, b-sides, whims, soundtrack songs, covers...

Pearl Jam opened Saturday night with “Release” from Ten – no surprise there, as the song is a common springboard for the band. But next up was “Arms Aloft,” Pearl Jam's U.S. debut of the Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros cover.

Thus began a twisted array of bizarre treats, such as the largely spoken-word “Push Me, Pull Me” from 1998's Yield; the first-ever full-band performance of “Setting Forth” from Eddie Vedder's solo Into the Wild soundtrack; the inaugural performances of “In the Moonlight” and “Education” from the Lost Dogs rarities collection; “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust” from the Singles soundtrack.

Guests were plentiful. Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas... um... chirped his way through “Not For You” (and for some reason felt compelled to note, “Hey, you dropped your pick,” as Vedder began playing the song's muted, finger-picked ending). Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and Liam Finn manned the mics much more effectively, Homme lending his eerie falsetto to “In the Moonlight” and Finn belting out harmonies on “Education.” (Sidenote: The towering 6'5” Homme made the diminutive Vedder look like a lawn gnome.)

To be brutally frank, Pearl Jam was not locked in on this particular evening. Granted, the band had not performed live for several months, and the cobwebs showed. Vedder, known for keeping a bottle of wine at the hip during concerts, held a bottle in each hand at one point and playfully growled, “I've got two...” Flubbed lyrics and missed cues abounded, but ultimately felt charming; it was as though the band let everyone in on a secret during a rare unguarded moment.

Vedder even paused for a moment to thank the childhood version of himself for clinging to his passion for music, noting that support from others is often scarce while one chases dreams.

“We just didn't listen,” he said to robust cheers.

The best band of the night didn't even take the stage until Encore One – and it wasn't Pearl Jam. That distinction went to Temple of the Dog. A reunion of this one-off early-1990s superpower is a musical Holy Grail, and an audible shockwave trembled through the crowd as Vedder introduced Chris Cornell. The Soundgarden/Temple of the Dog/grunge legend looked lean and relaxed, his black hair flowing over his shoulders in a fitting salute to those glory days. An even better salute? Cornell's golden pipes, unchanged by time, howling through a four-song mini-set.

Temple of the Dog opened with “Stardog Champion” by Mother Love Bone, a tribute to Andrew Wood, whose untimely death spurred the creation of Temple of the Dog – and, ultimately, Pearl Jam. Vedder and Glen Hansard provided backing vocals on “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” and Liam Finn joined the Bearded Supremes on “Reach Down.”

But everybody was waiting for “Hunger Strike,” and Cornell and Vedder delivered. It was the kind of pristine moment reserved for a spectacular gathering such as this, a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of perfection.

Cornell's breathtaking appearance revitalized Vedder, who staged a roaring comeback with a spirited rendition of the Who's “Love, Reign O'er Me” and a punishing “Porch.” Mudhoney joined Pearl Jam for the finale encore, an incendiary take on the MC5 classic “Kick Out The Jams.” With Pearl Jam finally firing on all cylinders, the table was set for an epic Sunday night.

“Let's do it again sometime,” Vedder suggested after 28 songs and two-and-a-half hours. “How about tomorrow?”

Setlist

1) Release
2) Arms Aloft
3) Do The Evolution
4) Got Some
5) In My Tree
6) Faithfull
7) Who You Are (w/ Joseph Arthur, Liam Finn and Glen Hansard on backing vocals, Glen Peterson on percussion)
8) Push Me, Pull Me
9) Setting Forth
10) Not For You w/ Julian Casablancas
11) In the Moonlight w/ Josh Homme
12) Deep
13) Help Help
14) Breath
15) Education w/ Liam Finn
16) Once
17) State of Love and Trust w/ Dhani Harrison
18) Betterman/Save It For Later
19) Wasted Reprise
20) Life Wasted

Encore One

21) Rearviewmirror
22) Stardog Champion
23) Say Hello 2 Heaven
24) Reach Down
25) Hunger Strike
26) Love, Reign O'er Me
27) Porch

Encore Two

28) Kick Out The Jams w/Mudhoney