When Pearl Jam emerged as part of the early '90s grunge hype, the band seemed like classic rockers among punk bands.
Part of the act had to do with diffidence or plain spite: The brooding lyrics and deadly serious demeanor; the love-hate relationship with commerciality and the limelight; that whole flannel-laden, one-with-the-people aesthetic.
But there was also plenty there for fans of '60s and '70s hard rock: Frontman Eddie Vedder's voice, a highly textured baritone that comes from the belly and can fill every nook of a large space, quickly became iconic; Stone Gossard and Hendrix-worshipping lead guitarist Mike McCready staked a claim as one of rock's great guitar tandems, making nightly arguments for the big riff and the extended solo when musical incompetence was cool.
Simply put, it was thoroughly son's music, but there was enough Aerosmith and Led Zep there to please Dad as well ...
Much of the group's terrific two-plus hours at Jiffy Lube Live last night suggested the opposite: a band of punk fury playing in an arena-rock atmosphere. They played more recent material, like "Got Some" and "World Wide Suicide," and older songs, like "Blood" and "Spin the Black Circle," that were bashing, direct and venomous.
Vedder took on punk's guise of the rock 'n' roll leftist intellect, quoting Kurt Vonnegut and sending one out to the late Howard Zinn, and, less gracefully, encouraging lobbyists for fundamentally corrupt finance outfits to kill themselves to "save the lives of others." (He quickly retracted the suicide bit and simply suggested they find work elsewhere.)
At other times the punk roots were made even plainer: Vedder talked about meeting Sex Pistol John Lydon at the prior night's Public Image Ltd. gig at 9:30 Club, and wore that band's T-shirt; as an encore, the band tackled the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer." (Vedder has made a hobby of referencing his inspirations from the rock underground. A more curious citation was Pearl Jam's intro music by Baltimore's own Phil Glass; but, hey, My Morning Jacket uses Steve Reich.)
A lot about the show indicated business as usual for a massive touring act. The crowd was simply rabid -- it seemed as if thousands of mouths moved in unison with Vedder's throughout -- and the $35 T-shirts and $55 sweatshirts were readily available.
Onstage, McCready flicked picks into the audience and played behind his head, and, on "Even Flow," developed a solo that betrayed his years worshipping his own guitar heroes: He started with slow bends, worked a single lick to a fever pitch, faced his amp cabinet a la Jimi Hendrix and evoked Stevie Ray Vaughan with some full-handed groove playing.
The show ended with more Hendrix homages: The ballad "Yellow Ledbetter" and McCready's take on Jimi's take on "The Star-Spangled Banner." Of course, some of Pearl Jam's most engaging material has been its most meditative, and those songs constituted high points here: the surprising opener, "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town;" "Black," something of a vocal showcase on this night; "Just Breathe," one of Vedder's recent, more contented songs, and one that he fingerpicked and sang on like a born acoustic troubadour; and "Better Man," a favorite dedicated here to Sean Penn and his work in Haiti. ("This song is about an abusive relationship. I'm not dedicating that part to Sean, just the title," Vedder quipped.)
In the end, the equal measure of brains and brawn, the balance between the stadium and the nightclub, was mightily impressive. Perhaps even more convincing is how they obtained all this: by holding up live performance as a virtue, making a slight art form of the set list and, in the case of last night, playing past venue curfew with the house lights on, giving 'em what they came for until it was no longer possible.
(Eddie Vedder performs at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 1, 2010 in New Orleans. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)