"We have a lot of emotion to get through tonight," Eddie Vedder said winkingly at the beginning of Pearl Jam's two-night Chicago stand that kicked off their U.S. tour. "Let's get through it together."
It's borderline incredible that Pearl Jam can take songs as dark and depressing as the three they opened with and alchemize them into unmitigated arena-rock joy. "Long Road," a hypnotic semi-rarity from their Neil Young collaboration Merkinball, is about the death of Vedder's former teacher; "Corduroy" dissects the dark side of overwhelming celebrity; and "Why Go" plays like Girl, Interrupted set to snarling guitars, but each came across here as a celebration.
But then that's the Pearl Jam m.o., and the reason they can still pack a place like the United Center-home of Vedder's beloved Chicago Bulls-nearly 20 years after turning angst into multi-platinum success with Ten. They might not sell as many records as they once did (who does?), but even on their worst night, Pearl Jam instinctively know how to connect with both the audience and each other. On their best night, they're unrivaled by any contemporaries who play venues this big.
One reason: They're never afraid to mix it up. Looking for still-passionate readings of "Evenflow" and "Alive" after all these years? They'll set you up, and Vedder will even head to the wings for a smoke and a dance during the former's drawn-out jam. (And guitarist Mike McCready, the band's strongest link to cock-rock, will still play the "Alive" solo behind his head.)
More interested in deep cuts from the "general-public-wasn't-paying attention" years? They've got that, too, in the shape of "Comeback," which was dedicated to a friend of bassist Jeff Ament's who was recently killed in a car accident, and "In Hiding," from 1998's Yield, both delivered mid-set in a cluster of songs that probably could've used a little kick.
Still, sparks flew again at the end of the main set with "Got Some," a blistering, punk-inspired newbie from the upcoming Backspacer, and its spiritual forefather, "Spin the Black Circle"-both songs about the redeeming power of music itself, something Pearl Jam knows well.
Over the course of two encores, PJ indulged in some homage to their inspirations, with a pair of Who covers ("Love, Reign O'er Me" and "The Real Me") as well as Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done," which Vedder dedicated to Michael Jackson, remarking,"It feels like we lost him a long time ago, actually."
Vedder also found time to namecheck a band of lesser historical stature, the Frogs, whose Dennis Flemion co-wrote some of the lyrics to the harmonica-happy "Smile," a highlight from the 1996's oft-overlooked No Code.
A fan close to the stage held up a sign saying, "More new shit," inspiring an impromptu version of Backspacer's "Supersonic" that was only possible after a brief intra-band pow-wow near the drum kit-apparently they're waiting to debut those songs live closer to the album's Sept. 20 release date.
It all should've ended with a blistering "Rearviewmirror," which nearly tripped over itself rushing out before settling into a chugging extended jam. (Vedder even accidentally delivered some of the second verse first.) Instead, in one of the show's only missteps, Pearl Jam ended with the bluesy fan-favorite "Yellow Ledbetter," with McCready segueing into a Hendrix-inspired "Star-Spangled Banner" to close the nearly two-and-a-half-hour set. It was a confusing emotional note to go out on, and pretty much the only one of the night that rang false.
It's also a minor complaint considering the highs that the rest of the set delivered, and how joyously and passionately Vedder and Co. approach the whole enterprise of playing for their fans. It's rare in a venue so large to feel like you're at a concert rather than a "show," and where the songs themselves, both the expected hits and the diehard-directed surprises, take precedence over lighting cues and confetti cannons-or whatever it is that drives lesser bands to play the same songs in the same order night after night.(Read our review of Pearl Jam's Friday night show in Toronto.)
Chicago Set list:
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Given to Fly
Man of the Hour
Spin the Black Circle
Love Reign O'er Me
The Real Me
The Needle and the Damage Done
Yellow Ledbetter/Star-Spangled Banner