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Pearl Jam emerges from adversity


On June 30, 2000, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam were headlining the Roskilde Festival in Denmark when nine fans were trampled to death as a huge crowd surged toward the stage when Pearl Jam began to play.

"To have that happen while we were playing, it was hard to continue on from there because your memories get connected to things, especially music, and that was a matter of life and death that absolutely had us thinking the band couldn't go on," says Vedder from Hawaii, where he's on vacation after finishing up Riot Act, the band's new CD, released Tuesday.

It gave Vedder perspective on the dilemma facing the Who when the band decided to soldier on in recent months even though bassist John Entwistle died of a heart attack on the eve of a national tour. Vedder may not be the world's biggest Who fan, but he's probably the most famous. For nearly a decade, he has been telling anyone who would listen that the Who's coming-of-age rock opera Quadrophenia was the album that helped him through a difficult adolescence.

"How do you make God laugh? You make plans for tomorrow," Vedder says. "I thought the day John passed, that was it. I wasn't just mourning John, I was mourning the fact that I'd never see them play live again. But they kept going, and didn't lose much of their stride. Instead of going home, they played on, which enabled them to process it as a group, a family of people, which they are, including the crew.

"It was healthy for them to process it that way, rather than sit in a corner of a room that doesn't feel like it's got a floor to it. I understand the people who criticize them for going on. But ultimately it's their choice, and the fact that they went out and used the music to process it with the fans, I thought it was a courageous option."

Vedder says Pearl Jam came to a similar crossroads after its Danish disaster, and decided to keep going.

"We'll never play another festival again," he says. "That was a decision based on making a little bit of money, and that's something we have to live with. But afterward when we were trying to figure out what to do, the thought was not to react, but to respond. How to make the best of a really screwed-up situation."

That sense of the world's fragility courses through Riot Act, the most poignant and yet strangely life-affirming Pearl Jam album yet, with tracks such as "Love Boat Captain," which evokes a voyage through a storm, the acoustic prayer "Thumbing My Way," the uplifting sea chantey "I Am Mine," the mournful a cappella "Arc" and the wearily philosophical "1/2 Full."

The album is populated by drifters and dissenters awed by the universe and humbled by their insignificance in the face of it. It's a vantage point culled from years spent alone at sea. Vedder has been surfing since he was 12.

"The ocean demands humility," Vedder says. "A few days ago, I caught a 15-foot wave, and it doesn't [care] who you are or what you do. It's just rolling, and it's going to hit the shore with you or without you. You can't overpower a wave, you have to work with it, and you end up forming a deep connection with the water, the power of the ocean."

Pearl Jam's bassist, Jeff Ament, isn't a surf fiend. But even in his native Montana - a world away from Vedder's Pacific retreat - his perspective on himself, the band and life is similar: "We take what we do very seriously, but we also realize that in the grand scheme of things, we're not all that important."

Once the biggest band in the world, swept along by a tide of grunge-mania that elevated Vedder and the late Kurt Cobain into reluctant mainstream poster boys for a generation, Pearl Jam has been going about its work relatively quietly in recent years. Riot Act isn't packed with the kind of roof-raising anthems that distinguished the quintet's multimillion-selling 1990 debut, Ten. Instead, it's an album built on a more subtle foundation of melody, groove and introspection.

Fourth-year drummer Matt Cameron's reliability - "We've had drummers who were pretty interesting characters," Ament says - has helped turn Pearl Jam into a stellar live act; gone are the volatile early days when Vedder would literally scale the rafters or surf the crowd in search of transcendence.

Now the power is all in the music rather than the antics. The gestures are smaller, but the themes in the music are broader.

None resonates as deeply as "Love Boat Captain."

"I know it's already been sung," the song says, but Vedder sings it anyway: "Can't be said enough, love is all you need." Instead of shouting those last lines, Vedder practically whispers them, amplifying their impact.

"It feels a little strange talking about love that openly, but if you can't do it now, when can you do it?" he says. "Love is one resource that the corporations aren't going to be able to monopolize. Which means there's hope for us human beings yet."

Greg Kot is a rock critic for the Chicago Tribune.

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