Tightly, unrelentingly, in an almost businesslike manner, Pearl Jam delivered mostly its greatest hits at Washington's Verizon Center Tuesday night. Each song - including fine cuts from the '90s grunge band's latest album, simply titled Pearl Jam - burned into the next as the rabid, packed house shouted the lyrics, almost drowning out lead singer Eddie Vedder.
It wasn't until about 40 minutes into the show that Vedder gave his Mack-truck-like vocals a rest to greet the arena filled mostly with head-banging, fist-pumping, air-guitar-playing males.
"We're glad you're spending your summer inside with us," Vedder said, holding a bottle of wine. "Here's to summer." Then he took a quick swig.
The heat outside nearly matched that of the band's set. After touring constantly for about 15 years, Pearl Jam has evolved into an incredibly tight unit. The interlocking guitar work of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard is as finely textured as ever. The band's new album, which has rightfully garnered high acclaim since its release earlier this month, showcases Pearl Jam's clearly focused musical direction these days. Gone are the lyrical and musical affectations that marred the group's albums in the past decade. Now on a new label (J Records), the hard-rock quintet has centered on more accessible, melodic tunes buoyed by shifting, almost telepathic instrumental interplay and Vedder's seemingly sincere, full-throttle delivery.
With this new sense of focus, even older jams such as 1991's "Release," the show opener, sounded fresher and invigorated. Although newer cuts like the band's current single, "World Wide Suicide," may be a bit wordy, they're still more immediate than past hits, a testament to Pearl Jam's newly evolved, emotional and assured songcraft.
Lyrically, though, little has changed. Vedder still writes seething tales of personal insecurities and social injustices. He introduced "Unemployed," a highlight from the new album, with a minisermon about a guy who's diligent about doing the right thing. He takes care of home, goes to church, prays but still finds his world falling apart. If the story sounds depressing, the music was anything but. Faithful to the studio version, "Unemployed" swaggered with the impressive, propulsive drumming of Matt Cameron.
The tunes during the first half of the show roared immediately then burned out like fuses. In the second half, Pearl Jam stretched out more, morphing into a relaxed, Grateful Dead-like jam band. During "Even Flow" from the group's 1991 debut, McCready cut loose with a blues-tinged, Hendrix-style solo. The crowd became more a part of the music during the loose second half, offering syncopated hand claps or singing the entire song. The latter happened on "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town" from the band's 1993 album, Vs.
Vedder's sonorous voice finely suited such slower-paced, soul-dipped ballads as "Come Back," taken from the new album. He seemed to calm the crowd, if only for a moment. The same guys who were twitching and jumping around during the show's first run of songs swayed, eyes closed, in the aisles.