Well past two hours into Pearl Jam’s show Wednesday night at the Henry Fonda Theater, Eddie Vedder paused to thank, well, everybody, including sound people, the people who opened up (Sonic Youth), the people who closed (the theater staff), the sun for getting up every day (“it’s so consistent, every morning you wake up and there it is — except in Seattle”), the moon (“which is full and making us all crazy”), the Earth (“for letting us stand on it”), even the plants (“talk to the plants; they listen, you know”).
About that time, some guy came up to me and asked, “Is Eddie hammered?” Well, considering that earlier it looked like he forgot which hand his wine bottle was in and tried to drink his microphone, I’d say that was a safe bet.
The guy was smoking and drinking like a merchant marine. But what’s amazing about Vedder is how he can go from looking like he’s about to fall down from exhaustion, cigarettes and enough vino to turn the Last Supper into an orgy to then seamlessly rendering “Indifference” like a song bird. Vedder’s a happy drunk. Really happy. And really generous. Where once he seemed to want everyone to just leave him alone, now he’s saying, hey, take all of me, I’ve got a lot to give.
That attitude permeated the entire band, as each member appeared to be having the time of his life, despite the fact that the Fonda didn’t even appear to be at capacity. (“Fifteen years later and you think we’d be able to sell the place out,” joked Vedder.)
No matter, Pearl Jam is turning into something weird and wonderful — occupying a place in music that is part The Who, part Grateful Dead, part experimental, saturated droning à la My Bloody Valentine and part religious revival. Of course, the religion is old-timey rock & roll, and the concerts are almost evangelical love-ins. A band that once was disdainful of being elevated in such ways is now clearly basking in their fans’ adulation and giving it right back. PJ easily could have phoned in last night’s KROQ-sponsored show, but instead played an exhausting two and a half hours, pretty much stopping only long enough for Vedder to light up another smoke and pop another cork. And, no, he didn’t bogart that joint, venturing instead to pour glasses into the outstretched arms of first-row fans when the occasion called for it. Rock & roll shows can still be beautiful, communal gatherings, things at which massive tides of energy can be harnessed and used both for occasion to celebrate and reflect, and no band this side of U2 seems to understand that like Pearl Jam — the main difference being that Vedder has found the shoes of a worldly bard fit better than those of a martyr or messiah.
The set list was packed with hits. Some of the best moments included “Dissident” and an extended take on “Rearview Mirror” that traveled from punk to melodic feedback squall to anthemic rave-up. But they had no fear of serving up songs like “Lukin” and “Grievance” off the “weird” (and wonderful) records like No Code and Binaural that the average KROQ listener (age 18?) probably didn’t know existed. This is a band that’s built for live action, every song seeming to reach its potential in this cloistered, sweaty and euphoric setting. More than once Vedder expressed how glad he was to be playing at such a historic and intimate venue, promising that they’d do the place justice by “playing our little, white Seattle asses off.”
They did. I’ve seen Neil Young and Crazy Horse a few times, and Pearl Jam’s double-whammy rave-ups of Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Victoria Williams’ “Crazy Mary,” in which they squeezed every drop out of the groove, were like Crazy Horse gone beserk.
But it was hard to top the band’s rendition of the Ramones’ “I Believe In Miracles,” featuring Indie 103.1’s Steve Jones, looking like the man who ate Vince Vaughn. Jonesy seemed to be learning the song on the spot, but he got it just in time to bring it all home (and to tweak KROQ?) with some vintage Jonesy leads.
The second coming of Pearl Jam is a special thing — they get older and their fans get younger and more devoted, or devotional. For those of you who haven’t tuned in, do yourself a favor and get to a show. Like an old friend, it’s good for the soul.