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Still Rockin’ in the Almost Free World 

Thursday, Jun 12 2003

PEARL JAM at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, June 3

Kurt Cobain, martyr of the “everything sucks” era, famously carped in his diaries that he wished his band would be forever released from its association with Pearl Jam. Cobain, who privately chafed under the punk ethos he publicly championed, wouldn’t have to worry about that were he around today: Comparisons would be even more nonsensical now than they were then.

Pearl Jam has always been too expansive, both sonically and lyrically, to be stuck in punk prison. That’s been an asset. On the other hand, one of Pearl Jam’s liabilities has been its self-consciousness about the coolnoscenti who derided the band in its earlier days for not being punk enough. That self-consciousness (thanks, Kurt?) sometimes caused the band to deny its strengths — big songs for big spaces, be they an amphitheater or the hole in your soul — in order to curry favor with the dons and doyennes of the alt-music world. But even in the early to mid-’90s, when that shit almost had meaning, Pearl Jam was at its best when it was transcending trends, rather than copping to them for credibility’s sake, as they did in their occasional punk nods on Vs. and Vitalogy.

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Happily, Pearl Jam, no longer weighted with the hopes and expectations of a generation, does very little copping these days and a whole lot of good rocking. After a tortured, self-examining trip through the last half of the last decade — during which time it fought with everybody from MTV to Ticketmaster to Rolling Stone, and, especially, with itself — Pearl Jam seems relieved to have put down its dukes and found its way back to its promise as America’s best (and only?) rock & roll band. This, of course, is not news to Pearl Jam’s loyal but diminished fan base — the downloader/bootlegger geeks and sensitive jocks who stayed on the bus when the band didn’t keep releasing Ten or Vs.; the ones who stuck with Pearl Jam as it disappeared from radio, MTV and Billboard charts even as StaindPuddleCreed, using Ten as its playbook, got fat off the beerhounds’ appetites for pale imitation.

Pearl Jam’s ferocious energy and good heart were always admirable, not to mention Eddie Vedder’s ability to write smartly from a woman’s point of view, but as cathartic as they could be, one also had to wonder when they would write the truly great song or masterful album that would put them among the greats and not just the best-sellers. Then former Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons came onboard for the folksy, world-music-tinged No Code, and Pearl Jam started to find its groove, while the masses moved on to KornyBiscuit. That album and 1998’s Yield, with a handful of overlooked, understated songs like “MFC” or “In Hiding,” hinted at what the band could do with the right drummer. Matt Cameron, late of Soundgarden, took over for the ailing Irons in 2000, and the band settled down, opened up, and made its masterpiece, the critically un-acclaimed Binaural, a cohesive, melancholy collection of songcraft about growing older, drifting apart and dying. Of course, relative to its mega-platinum past, Binaural was a flop.

Even less appreciated has been its most recent release, Riot Act, a sure-footed rock album for adults who feel unsettled by the greed and decay of our current cowboy culture. Among its many gems is the wonderful “Love Boat Captain,” clearly the band’s ballsiest song, and possibly the year’s best pop/rock number. Tender, plaintive, romantic and rollicking, the song is bracing in its unabashed desire to let love rule. It’s also the type of song the earthy Vedder was born to sing. Not surprisingly, the song and the album are big in Europe, where homosexual panic isn’t the plague of politics and culture.

Like his idols Pete Townshend and Neil Young, Eddie Vedder has been a seeker looking for truth and deliverance in rock & roll. With the band’s downsized but still sizable following more and more taking on the devotional trappings of a congregation — following the band from show to show, logging the ever-changing set lists — Vedder can assume the role of the Good Reverend that has been played (and played out) by preachers like Bono and Springsteen. The band, for its part, is serving up a fiery, two-and-a-half-hour rock & roll revival tour.

Don’t worry about getting browbeaten. If Tuesday night’s show in Irvine is any indication, P.J.’s (named for Phil Jackson, Vedder teased the Lakers’ coach, who was on his feet and agape in the third row, as if he were seeing Jordan for the first time) method is more Socratic than dogmatic, content to let the music make the converts. Vedder stopped the two and a half hours’ worth of music infrequently, and then mostly to joke with the audience (“We feel like we’ve given birth to twins,” he said of the two-night stand, “and you looked like the ugly one, but you turned out all right”), or to make a gentle public-service announcement against FCC deregulation and for voting and “having kids.”

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