Lessons from PJ20: how Pearl Jam embraced superstardom without really trying
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At the end of Pearl Jam’s show Saturday at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wisconsin, Eddie Vedder seemed tired, but glowing with gratitude concerning his band’s 20th anniversary party. “We’ve been an information band, a passionate band, but never a party band,” he enthused. “That’s what we got to be tonight.” It was an appropriate summation of the weekend: The band was loose and relaxed; Vedder kept politics off the table (for the most part); and he commiserated gleefully onstage with the friends and admirers who’d been invited to join the celebration.
Following the whirlwind success of Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, and Vedder’s seeming inability to handle sudden fame, nobody voted the band “most likely to last 20 years” in the grunge yearbook. But the Labor Day weekend festival was a grand illustration of how PJ has maintained a rabid fanbase throughout two decades of running away from superstardom. It’s a simple formula, really:
Play the hits.
A lot of successful artists grow to hate their early songs, especially if those were their biggest hits. Pearl Jam didn’t really gel as a band until 1994’s Vitalogy, and as a result, the group’s most well-known songs are actually prototypes from before Vedder’s influence steered the band away from its West Coast arena-rock aspirations. During Vedder’s most publicly lonely years at the top, he and the band went so far as to rearrange “Jeremy” into a virtually unrecognizable drone, just to show how unconcerned they were with pleasing their teeny-bopper fans. Yet over the years—as the memory of Top 40 has faded—“Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” and “Alive” have become true Pearl Jam songs. Each track from the illustrious debut was a highlight of the weekend, showcasing ferocious full-band energy and a crowd response that owed very little to nostalgia.
For ballads like “Daughter” and “Better Man,” Vedder guided the band into snippets of other songs during extended codas, or played call-and-response with the crowd. “Even Flow” and “Alive” gave Mike McCready opportunities to flaunt his Jimmy Page-meets-Nels Cline lead guitar work. For old fan favorites like “Rearviewmirror” and “Porch,” the band blasted off into unknown psychedelic territory, and although the versions from Saturday night were relatively tame, they were different enough from their studio counterparts to still feel fresh.
Play the obscure stuff, too.
Pearl Jam knows that weekend festival audiences are typically made up of longtime fans who want to hear some deep cuts. So while it was only the bare essentials as far as the hits were concerned, the floodgates were open in terms of rarities during PJ20. The sing-alongs were almost as loud for odd album tracks like “Help Help” and “Push Me, Pull Me,” and old B-sides like “Wash” and “Leatherman” as they were for the Ten tracks.
Wear your influences on your sleeve.
It’s a rare Pearl Jam show that doesn’t feature either a Who or Neil Young tune, and the weekend shows featured fine versions of “Love, Reign O’er Me” and “Rockin’ In The Free World.” But there were far more interesting and revealing covers as well. A sizzling take on Public Image Ltd.’s “Public Image” during Sunday’s encore shed some light on Vedder’s cranky spitfire persona from “Do The Evolution.” Mark Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney lent their caustic attitude to punk-rock covers during both nights (MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” and Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”), and in one of the oddest moves of the weekend, the band’s second song of Saturday night was a cover of Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros’ “Arms Aloft.” On Sunday, the band brought out John Doe for a take on X’s “The New World,” a song that PJ hadn’t played since the Bush era, and a predecessor to PJ’s own overt politicizing on 2002’s Riot Act.
Make lots of friends.
At first glance, the lineup for the festival made little sense—not only was it exactly the same for both days, but only a few of the artists on the bill had any obvious affiliation with Pearl Jam. Yet nearly every performer had a tale to tell about a personal PJ relationship. The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard owned one of the most emotional moments of the weekend—at the end of his solo set, he told the crowd how Vedder had called him out of the blue the previous summer following the death of a fan during a concert. Pearl Jam had dealt with a similar catastrophe 10 years earlier when nine fans were crushed and suffocated during their Roskilde Festival performance, and Hansard spoke of Vedder’s empathy being a great help in dealing with the tragedy. He then invited the host onstage for a stirring duet of “Falling Slowly.”
Vedder popped up all over the place on Sunday, also appearing with Liam Finn (son of long-time PJ associate Neil Finn), joining Doe for “The New World,” and lending some vocals during main-stage sets by Queens Of The Stone Age and The Strokes. This kind of cross-pollination is a common attraction at festivals, but the camaraderie was more tight-knit and widespread at PJ20 than in most cases.
Pearl Jam selected a terrific supporting cast for the weekend. Early-afternoon treats included thenewno2, fronted by Dhani Harrison; and Liam Finn, who found entertaining ways to pull the rug out from under catchy rock tunes with bursts of manic noise and improv. The guys from Mudhoney seemed to relish the opportunity to play to a larger-than-usual audience—Arm prowled the stage like a next-generation Iggy Pop, and the band sounded exactly like it did in 1993.
The only real letdown of the weekend was Queens Of The Stone Age. Frontman Josh Homme never seemed to get comfortable on the big stage, coming off as oafish and awkward. The band was tight and there were a few impressive stoner-prog excursions (“The Fun Machine Took A Shit & Died” stood out), but the swagger and humor that enliven the band’s records seemed disingenuous here. Being stuck between Mudhoney and The Strokes didn’t help, either; Casablancas and company commanded the crowd’s rapt attention as if they were topping the bill. Like most of the seemingly odd choices of the weekend, The Strokes fit right in.
Pay tribute to fallen comrades.
Sunday night was highlighted by three well-placed guest spots: Finn bounced all over the stage during a bombastic performance of “Habit;” Casablancas joined in for a killer jam on “Red Mosquito;” and Hansard returned Vedder’s favor by belting out “Smile.” But the most contentious collaboration was the unannounced appearance that everyone saw coming: Chris Cornell, reprising his role in the original grunge supergroup Temple Of The Dog. While the Temple portions of the shows effectively killed the energy for a half-hour or so, even these stilted, posturing Cornell appearances fulfilled a wish many fans had been long harboring. Though the songs haven’t aged well, they almost had to be played to pay tribute to Andy Wood, the fallen frontman from Mother Love Bone, without whom there would be no Pearl Jam. In the end, it was this giant network of emotional attachments that made Pearl Jam’s anniversary blowout special. For anyone at all connected with this band, it was an unforgettable weekend.