As much criticism as Pearl Jam has taken over the past decade for the retail overkill of making every single concert it plays commercially available as a live album, the side effect of forcing the band to change its set lists drastically from night to night is an easy positive. Constantly digging up rarities and obscure covers to keep fans interested and justify commemorating each night on CD has made Pearl Jam one of the more unpredictable arena-rock acts still standing, attentively picking through its back catalog in ways that older classic rock acts with longer discographies rarely bother. And the band's brief current summer tour, which stopped in Washington D.C. Sunday night, had no new studio album to promote, freeing up the band to delve even further into its song options.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists were a typically impeccable choice of opening act for Pearl Jam--OK, we're ignoring the fact that the other openers on this tour are Kings Of Leon--but not an ideal environment for Leo and his punky backing band. Leo is a great performer for small rooms, and having seen him play many club shows highlighted just how ill-suited a large venue like the Verizon Center is to his strengths. The songs' frantic tempos were swallowed up by the echoing acoustics of the arena's high ceilings, and even Leo's dry stage patter became somewhat incoherent when broadcast over such a large area. But the Pharmacists were good sports nonetheless, opening the set with a run-through of four of their best known songs, including "Sons Of Cain" and "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?"
Since much of the audience was entirely unfamiliar with his oeuvre, you imagine Leo reasoning, anything the Pharmicists played would be all new to them. And so the seven songs that followed--which presumably, may form half of the next Pharmacists album--sounded promising, as driving and relentlessly hooky as his past efforts. But in this environment, again, it was hard to hear the intricacies of familiar favorites. Surprisingly, it was only with a closing cover of Chumbawumba's "Rappaport's Testament (I Never Gave Up)" that Leo finally pulled it together and found an anthemic slow burner that translated to the setting.
Thankfully, Pearl Jam has been playing arenas virtually its entire career, and have songs perfectly suited to screaming out to the rafters, as proven when they took the stage soon after. Pearl Jam's set list was predictably unpredictable from the jump, beginning the set with the early B-side "Hard To Imagine." And though it was a few songs in before the band started tossing out any of its bigger radio hits, eventually those hits came flooding out, from "Daughter" to "Evenflow." All the while, the band would sneak in deep cuts from more recent albums, such as "Evacuation," which had barely begun when Stone Gossard's guitar cut out and the band playfully fell into chaos and moved onto the next song. The biggest surprise, though, was the rarely played "I'm Open" from 1996's No Code, which Eddie Vedder briefly sang, without its cringe-inducing spoken word verses, as an intro to "I Got ID." The band's penchant for clever thematic sequences cropped up when Vedder said, "These next few are about you guys," and the band played "You Are" and the 1998 outtake "U" in a row, and, as expected, "Who You Are" followed.
Vedder, who rarely played guitar on the band's early albums, now plays for long stretches of Pearl Jam's concerts, giving the band a dense three-guitar lineup that amazingly still allows enough space for each player to be heard. The band's lead guitarist, Mike McCready, frequently took breaks for solos, but it was his restrained, twangy takes on "I Am Mine" and "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town" that enhanced the songs, rather than the squealing million-note showboating that he appeared to phone in on the up-tempo songs.
Matt Cameron has been Pearl Jam's drummer for more than a decade now, but his powerful, precise playing has never been as good a fit for its woolly anthems as it was for the metal aspects of his previous band, Soundgarden. And Cameron, who played on some of the band's early demos but wasn't on any of the first five albums, sometimes steamrolls over the accents and subtleties that his predecessors imbued those songs with. On Sunday, though, he displayed an increased sensitivity to the material, confidently tackling the Jack Irons' polyrhythms on "Who You Are" that are normally far out of his comfort zone.
After one encore that ended with a stellar, and very long rendition of the live staple "Rearviewmirror," Pearl Jam returned to the stage once more, this time facing backward to play the hit "Last Kiss" directly to the audience members up behind the stage who'd been watching the band's backs all night. Facing forward again, the band closed out with a string of crowd-pleasers, including "Alive," "Yellow Ledbetter," and covers of "All Along The Watchtower" and the Lucinda Williams gem "Crazy Mary." And though it'd be tempting to call the show a rousing, transcendent evening, the band was onto another city the next night, putting together another idiosyncratic set list to surprise yet another arena full of fans.