Pearl Jam has long been famous for starting shows at a slow pace. At the first of the two-night event at United Center on Tuesday, the band breathed new life into tradition by kicking off a 150-minute set playing four songs while sitting on a stool. The sequence created a relaxed atmosphere for a performance that transcends traditional rock concert concepts and instead represents a deep-rooted exchange based on community, collectivity and solidarity.
Having close connections with fans is nothing new for the group. But this special event (the first appearance of Pearl Jam on the field since August 2018 and the first outside of Wrigley Field since 2009) conveyed the feeling that the band held a large family dinner for everyone in the packed arena. Tales were told, memories shared, loves embraced, losses shared, indulgences offered, jokes made, advice given, personal information disclosed, guests introduced, changes recorded. No story or action seemed out of bounds.
Vocalist-guitarist Eddie Vedder served as conductor of the banquet. In a particularly empathetic and evocative mood, the Evanston native has repeatedly spoken of what Chicago means to him and expressed his sincere gratitude. Vedder and Co. The unfiltered event served as part celebration, part conversation, part home away from home. And a chance to strengthen ties with the faithful.
Thirty years after the heyday of the so-called “grunge,” a catchall term for a style Pearl Jam never truly embraced, the Seattle band remains the last major surviving group from the movement. Except for Mudhoney, they exist as the only collective on that stage to prevent separations, reunions, and deaths. Apart from switching drummers early in his career (Matt Cameron replaced him in ’98), Pearl Jam is essentially the same team that graced the Metro stage at the band’s first Chicago show in July 1991.
Naturally, Pearl Jam is not the same band. Its productivity and visibility pales in comparison to the heyday of the 90s and 2000s. In the last 10 years, the quintet has released only two studio albums. Seeing the band spend most of their time on the road, he hit the brakes on a once-fever touring schedule. While no new material has surfaced on Tuesday, there are rumors that an LP may be coming.
Instead, the crowd was presented with a series of deep cuts and lively favourites. Getting rid of the unwritten rule that musicians had to upload hits while playing to audiences in the stadium, Pearl Jam kept things loose and unpredictable. It goes without saying that the relationship the band continues to develop with fans has given him a creative license to stray, to surprise, to experiment, to fail, that few other artists enjoy.
Pearl Jam in 2023 is characterized as a cult group with loyal followers. Their habit of changing set lists and presenting shows without a background so people can sit behind and beside the stage is reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s habits. In another parallel, Vedder mocked the few loyal people in the front row, saying that he saw them more than his family.
Family and friends became interchangeable on Tuesday for the 58-year-old singer, and each approached with a respectful attitude. Vedder spoke at length about his recently deceased aunt and her attendance at the memorial service. His picture flashed on two projection screens, and Pearl Jam dedicated its shimmering “Light Years” to his memory.
She took more time to praise her grandmother and her apartment, which she passed by on Monday, and after stopping to meet the families who now live in the building. Tick the onscreen photos of Vedder and his new friends and the corresponding solo cover of “Throw Your Arms Near Me”. As for a recently deceased European fan traveling with fellow Pearl Jam fanatics? He was greeted like a beloved relative, with a tribute and an enthusiastic run through the “Rear Mirror”.
Chicago Blackhawks icon Chris Chelios, who inexplicably appeared on stage in Evil Knievel attire, did not hold any commemorations. Still, past local writer-historian Studs Terkel secured a call, as did the TV show “The Bear,” filmed in Chicago, as well as the “L” and the Cubs’ “W” flag. An impromptu rendition of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender”, highlighted by lead guitarist Mike McCready wearing a jacket bearing the Rockford-based band’s logo, did justice to one of the area’s music legends.
Pearl Jam largely skipped divisive issues, focusing on staying firm in the face of difficulties and refusing to back down or apologize. The ensemble tapped into the spiritual veins (the ethereal sound of “Release”), disguised scary reality as adventurous sci-fi (a humming “Quick Escape”), ventured into the realms of electro-funk (“The Dance of the Seeing Dance”), and entertained people. punk obsessions (a tinkling “Dice of the Gods”, immediate “Comatose”).
Backed by multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer and veteran touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar, the quartet displayed their usual rhythmic sensibility. Jeff Ament’s distinctive bass and McCready’s melodic solo, who spent most of his time stepping in a tight environment like an animal surrounded by an invisible fence, ignited the arrangements. Pearl Jam just fell short on old fare (“Animal”, “Not For You”), which at this stage of the band’s career required a primal rage that sounded pale and too polite.
But there’s nothing wrong with the group’s enthusiasm or chemistry. Despite the muddy voices stealing details and causing mass crescendos to churn, Pearl Jam still interacted like guys who liked to be in the same room. Vedder jumped over monitors, performed spinning jumps, and directed the impressions of Who’s mainstay Roger Daltrey (rotation of the mic cable) and Pete Townshend (windmill guitar chords) and held everything and everyone together.
With a goatee and hair that reaches his neck, Vedder still has quite a range, despite his age affecting his falsetto. In excellent form, he strategically chose points where he would save his voice by skipping certain sections or letting the audience serenade the band. His aggressive singing was often akin to hitting him in the chest or punching him in the gut; His distinctive groans, murmurs, and growls dominated the meditation melodies.
In their old haunt Vedder and his band were fine, they were alive. In fact, they were even better, though, as they showcased an increasingly endangered trait in rock ‘n’ roll: courage.
“At least I have the courage to try (blasphemy),” Vedder said after announcing he would derail “The Dice of the Gods.” Words for everyone, everywhere.
Pearl Jam with guest Inhaler at 7:30 p.m. United Center, 1901 W. Madison St.; www.unitedcenter.com
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
The tracklist at United Center on September 5:
“The Dice of the Gods”
“Dance of the Standing”
“In My Tree”
“Throw Your Arms Around Me” (Hunters and Collectors cover)
“Not for you”
“Better Man” to “Save for Later” (English Beat cover)
“Surrender” (Cheap Trick cover)