Pearl Jam dusts off the jam
by Seth Rogovoy

(ALBANY, N.Y., April 30, 2003) – Pearl Jam was the only band that outlasted the hype surrounding the early-‘90s “Seattle sound” – sometimes called “grunge-rock” – and to go on to enjoy mainstream popularity as the biggest American rock band of that decade. While some of the luster may have faded from the band among younger listeners, that didn’t keep about 15,000 overwhelmingly male fans from crowding into the Pepsi Arena on Tuesday night to sing along with the group’s anthems and ballads of teen-age angst.

Dressed in trademark plaid -- if not flannel – over a blue T-shirt, lead singer/songwriter Eddie Vedder led the musicians, including guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and guest keyboardist Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar through a two-hour program of songs drawn from throughout the group’s career, as well as a few choice and suggestive classic-rock covers.

The group’s own music tends to be monochromatic, often two-chord vamps in minor keys that typically suit dour lyrics like “First comes love, then comes pain” and “I wish I was a neutron bomb.” The lighting design – dark, moody blues and greens – reflected that overall ambiance, as did the group’s stage presentation, which eschewed theatricality or pyrotechnics in favor of straightforward, nightclub-style, no-frills hard rock.

Vedder’s unique, affecting voice with its deep vibrato and muscular wail was in fine form and tailor-made for songs like “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and “Better Man” that ached with the low self-esteem that Pearl Jam and its fellow grunge-rockers made into a sort of art form.

The group tossed in a few surprises, too. Several songs, including “Wishlist” and “Daughter,” opened up into instrumental improvisational sections, giving new meaning to the band’s name.

“Daughter” also included a few choruses of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” a song whose enshrinement of anti-intellectualism and whiny, adolescent rebellion could well have given birth to the entire grunge sensibility. The crowd responded with one of many audience sing-alongs throughout the night, and Vedder calmed them at the end by intoning the words, “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

Pearl Jam made its mark by feeding disaffection back to its predominantly white, male teen-age audience (now its late-twentysomething audience) in faux-punk songs that lacked the political and sonic heft of hardcore and ballads that spun a romanticized view of teen alienation without the risk of rebellion.

As if to underline that, the band had to reach outside its catalog for a genuine political anthem, Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power,” to kick off the group’s 40-minute encore with impact. While Vedder – who read the lyrics from a sheet held up by a lucky fan named Rachel plucked out of the audience for duty as a “human music stand” -- and band gave it their all, the song seemingly fell on deaf ears, one of the only numbers of the night that didn’t inspire visible and audible signs of recognition and enthusiasm among the crowd.

And for the bring-the-house-down show-stopper, the band tapped the Who’s “Baba O’Riley (Teenage Wasteland),” a song which packs more musical twists and turns, ups and downs, and peaks and valleys into its five minutes than could be found in an entire concert’s worth of Pearl Jam songs.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 1, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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