In 2011, the Seattle-based rock band Pearl Jam celebrated 20 years in a business that is seldom kind to artists with a taste for longevity, and the group feted itself with an international tour, a Cameron Crowe-directed theatrical documentary and a career-spanning anthology. If it was an act of self-congratulation, it was a well-deserved one, as the band had survived the grunge trend, overnight success, a war with Ticketmaster, the ascendance of hip-hop and the waning of rock. The anniversary offered Pearl Jam an opportunity to take a breath, take stock and say to itself and its fans, “Look where we are, and look where we’ve been.” Left unstated, however, was the question, “Now, where do we go?”
On Friday night at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s restless, iconoclastic frontman, answered that question with a celebration of his own. In a 30-song performance that approached three hours and many more instances of euphoria, Vedder drew deeply from the Pearl Jam catalog, his solo material and his wide circle of friends. Ostensibly touring to promote his 2011 album, “Ukulele Songs,” and playing the first of two makeup dates originally scheduled for May but postponed because of injury, Vedder quickly dispelled any notion that the show would consist of little more than him strumming and plucking the four-string instrument while offering token nods to his still-very-active day-job band. If there was a nostalgic glow to some of the older material (“Porch” was accompanied by an anecdote about Pearl Jam’s first South Florida show, in April 1992, at Miami Beach’s Cameo Theater), Vedder nonetheless appeared to be living in the moment. And he refused to let the audience leave his side.
On a stage set up to evoke the comfortable, if cluttered, feel of a home studio, with its stickered drum box, reel-to-reel tape machine and arsenal of electric and acoustic guitars, Vedder opened the show wielding a Fender Stratocaster and a song he didn’t write: “Throw Your Arms Around Me,” by the 1980s-born Australian rock act Hunters and Collectors. He followed this surprise with a trio of early Pearl Jam songs — “Sometimes,” “Long Road” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” the first of the night’s many sing-alongs — before setting the guitar down and dipping into selections from “Ukulele Songs” and music Vedder composed for the 2007 film “Into the Wild.”
During this last section, Vedder brought to the stage opening act Glen Hansard, the Irish singer-songwriter best known for co-starring in the hit indie movie “Once” and for performing as half of the folk-pop duo the Swell Season. Hansard, whose intense but warm command of his audience betrays his street-busking past, proved to have an easy rapport with Vedder, who would invite him back out twice more, once to perform a trio of songs that included an unmiked version of the Everly Brothers’ “Sleepless Nights” on the lip of the stage, a smirking take on the “Into the Wild” track “Society” and a sublime duet on Hansard’s own, Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly.”
Vedder, grinning often throughout the night, appeared looser, and more-unguarded, than he ever has during one of Pearl Jam’s many South Florida concerts. For band and audience, a Pearl Jam show can be an exhilarating but exhausting affair, both for the marathonlike performances and the emotional give-and-take of the music. But Friday night, even when revisiting a song as somber as “Immortality,” Vedder freed it from its own gravitational pull by first relating a good-natured riff on how scientists believe the DNA of jellyfish may hold the secret to everlasting life. Only "Better Man," an obvious song about domestic abuse, failed to survive the change in atmosphere. After an introduction that was punctured by a marriage proposal from a male member of the audience — "I'd have to see you first," Vedder joked. "You sound a little rough" — the song, among the weakest in Pearl Jam's catalog, got buried under the weight of its own intentions.
The show’s 13-song encore, which given its length was more akin to a second set, moved the party from the garage to the back yard, where Vedder led a beer-and-liquor-fueled jamboree with Hansard and surprise guest Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Miami-based indie-rock superstar Cat Power. Around and between Vedder’s running solo through the Beatles’ “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Reason To Believe,” Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” and “Unthought Known” and Marshall’s own “Good Woman,” his guests tramped along with him on a half-dozen other songs, including a rousing, penultimate version of “Big Hard Sun.”
And even then, when no one would have blamed Vedder for calling it a night, he couldn’t stop. While exiting the stage, the musician paused, changed his mind and said, “One more.” He returned to his stool and delivered a sprightly rendition of the traditional folksong “Tomorrow Night,” a fitting sendoff pregnant with hope and promise. Indeed, Vedder plans to do it all again Saturday night at the Broward Center.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun