Eddie Vedder Still Rocks, Even on Ukulele Tour

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Eddie Vedder / Photo by Matt Lambert
WRITTEN BY
Eric Magnuson

Eddie Vedder is the kind of guy who can get onstage and sing platitudes like, "I'd never be the same without you," and you'd never question his earnestness or his cool. Even singing those words while he's plucking a ukulele, you'd be hard-pressed to say he wasn't sincere. So why not a full album of ukulele songs and a tour behind it?

The Pearl Jam frontman's said that the tracks off of his second solo album, Ukulele Songs, began as jokes, but they made up the backbone of a charmingly heartfelt set on Wednesday night. Opening a month-long, solo tour at the ornate Providence Performing Arts Center, Vedder proved that the miniature, four-stringed instrument can be just as versatile as his own yowling voice.

Vedder dove straight into six tracks from Ukulele Songs at the beginning of the night, molding his instrument into whatever he needed it to be. He plucked away at it harp-like for the bittersweet "Broken Heart." Then he thrashed at muted strings for "Can't Keep," a song that he gave an intensely hushed yelp to with Vs.-level energy, even though it originally appeared with relative calm on Pearl Jam's Riot Act in 2002.

The rest of the 25-song set covered a huge swath of Vedder's career, pulling songs from six of Pearl Jam's studio albums, plus six tracks from his Into the Wild soundtrack. (And, yes, most of the songs were played on guitar; not ukulele.) The career-spanning night was fitting as Pearl Jam is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year with a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary, album reissues, and its own two-day music festival in Wisconsin. Vedder didn't lean on nostalgia though.

He updated the old when he could: Playing ukulele on a wonderful solo rendition of "Better Man," Vedder turned the 3,000-seat theater into something more like an intimate bonfire party on the beach. He also played Riot Act's "Arc," an impressive, wordless chant that he looped over and over again, filling the room with at least five different versions of his memorable baritone. He came off like an old friend you haven't seen in ages: He's a little older now -- 46, actually -- and doing things a little differently. But it's still great to see him. The only time that the night seemed stale was on a perfunctory guitar rendition of "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" that sounded like it's been done a few too many times in concert.

Opener Glen Hansard (of the Swell Season, and the film Once) came back onstage to do his "Sleepless Nights" duet from Ukulele Songs and nicely complimented Vedder on Into the Wild's "Society." But the night belonged to Vedder, who happily joked around with a rowdy crowd and played the role of middle-aged rock god, talking about the difficulties of parenthood, and even brought out a quartet of kids to sing back-up on "Hard Sun."

When Vedder sang an acoustic version of "Porch" from Pearl Jam's debut, Ten, the opening line, "What the fuck is this world running to?" was tempered -- it was less angry. So maybe 1991 was a long time ago. Things are different now. And Vedder seemed perfectly happy with that.

Setlist:
Sleeping By Myself
Without You
Broken Heart
You're True
Light Today
Can't Keep
Sometimes
Just Breathe
I Am Mine
Better Man
No Ceiling
Far Behind
Guaranteed
Rise
Unthought Known
The End
Arc
(Break)
Hide Your Love Away (Beatles cover)
Throw Your Arms Around Me (Hunters & Collectors cover)
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Sleepless Nights (with Glen Hansard)
Society (with Glen Hansard)
Forever Young (Bob Dylan cover)
Porch
Hard Sun (with Glen Hansard)

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