Pearl Jam spent the better part of the last decade championing lefty causes and bashing neocon antics, notably on “Bushleager” and “Worldwide Suicide,” among other cuts (not to mention many a between-song rant and that controversial Denver “Dubya” Bush mask stomp a few years back.)
So even if band leader Eddie Vedder is more content to sing about the joys of surfing than anything you’ll see on CNN these days, you had to figure politics would come up at some point Monday night during Pearl Jam’s homecoming set at KeyArena, the first half of a two-night stand that continues today at 7:30 p.m.
“We weren’t gonna bring up anything political because we’ve got these positive, new songs (but) our President Obama has a lot to deal with,” Vedder declared, coyly, a few songs into the band’s performance.
The singer rattled off a list of executive branch woes, from the ailing economy to a health care reform debate “that will go on forever unless someone takes a chance and does the right thing.” But there was one thing the President had spoken up about recently that the band had to speak out about, he added solemnly.
“We, too, think Kanye West is a jackass,” Vedder said, dryly, the punch line setting off a fresh round of cheers before the band tore into the aforementioned “Worldwide Suicide.”
Sure, Vedder actually did passed along a real political endorsement later in the set, once passed along from grunge peer Krist Novoselic, who he said he had spoken to recently. But obviously he and the band – also also guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and keyboard player Boom Gaspar – aren’t raging against the machine so much these days.
Nope, the Seattle rock kings are in a different head space these days, in part reinvigorated by a well-deserved return to mainstream consciousness.
The “comeback” started in 2006, the year Pearl Jam’s critically acclaimed, self-titled album got enough ink in high-profile rock rags to remind large chunks of the record buying public that the band was still relevant years after the g-word stopped being cool and that “Jeremy” clip ran on MTV, every hour on the hour. (Funny how so many people needed a reminder about a band that had never stopped packing arenas, despite a lack of slick videos and conventional promotion.)
The notoriously elusive Vedder grew further re-acquainted with his own stardom as he pitched the folky soundtrack he wrote for pal Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” flick. And with the help of Conan O’Brien and new distribution partner, Target, the band unleashed “Backspacer” on Sunday, easily Pearl Jam’s most high-profile CD launch since flannel was in style.
The album is a lean and punchy 37 minutes, and the band was obviously proud of it’s new baby, as it crammed eight of its 13 songs into an epic 2 1/4 hour set. The “Backspacer” rockers – notably, “Gonna See My Friend,” “Got Some” and lead single, “The Fixer” – fit seamlessly in with such Pearl Jam classics as “Corduroy” and “Do the Evolution.”
“Johnny Guitar,” featuring Vedder’s most dynamic vocal performance on the new disc, was an intriguing if not perfect addition to the mix. (Did Vedder make a passing reference to Johnny “Guitar” Watson as he introduced that cut? I think so.) And “Just Breathe” and “The End” were poignant additions to the encore, the former enhanced by a small string section that included Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron’s wife, April.
Of course, the band delivered old fan favorites with a extra gusto, bolstered by one the most responsive crowds I’ve seen since – well – last time Pearl Jam toured. Fans threw their hands toward the ceiling as they belted out that uplifting refrain from “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town,” and they sang most of the first half of “Betterman,” a palpably stoked Vedder commenting – “Not bad” – before he and the boys took back over.
But the band saved its best for last, ending with the song that started it all, “Alive.” Picture 17,000 ecstatic fans, pumping their fists in unison as Vedder holding himself up with his mike stand, bent backwards and nearly parallel to the floor as he banged his head through McCready’s last invigorating guitar solo.
Absolutely fabulous! But sadly, I’ll miss tonight’s follow up set, so I’m hoping a few of you will surf between now and tomorrow morning to comment on how it stacks up to Monday night.
Ben Harper & Relentless 7 opened. Vedder later dedicated “Given to Fly” to the band (photo by Ernest Jasmin).