It may not be the coolest move to throw your own birthday party, but at least you get the celebration you want. The 20-year tributes to Nirvana’s Nevermind have been an unregulated free-for-all ranging from dignified (Krist Novoselic’s all-star bash, SPIN’s cover-songs tribute) to decidedly un- (Chris Brown, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ’nuff said). Pearl Jam on the other hand, arestill together, and thus capable of controlling the agenda for the 20th birthday of their watershed 1991 record, Ten.
If it’s surprising that they celebrated 2,000 miles away from Seattle – in Alpine Valley, WI – know that Pearl Jam long ago evolved past their original grunge label to become prefix-less, suffix-less Rock, a sound without geography. In other words, when you’re drawing fans from the four corners of the United States and as far away as Germany and New Zealand, you might as well drop the pin in the Midwest. They booked it and the fans came, showing they are dedicated enough to make Pearl Jam one of the endangered species that can still (almost) fill a gargantuan, 37,000-capacity amphitheatre like Alpine Valley for 2 nights over Labor Day weekend.
Any snark about the band being a museum piece in 2011 was pre-empted by an actual Pearl Jam museum on site, where fans waited in line an hour to file past Eddie Vedder’s 4-track and a display case containing “Hats Worn By Jeff Ament.” Fans also happily swarmed the merch booths for unique “PJ20” posters and clothing (including a hoodie with a wrong-date misprint), and crammed into special viewing areas reserved for the Ten Club, the Pearl Jam society of super-fans.
Those amenities were appreciated on a Saturday of poncho weather, with unceasing grey skies and a steady rain that put a soggy damper on tailgating plans and the afternoon side stages full of up-and comers and strummy solo acts. The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard tried to keep spirits up with a half-remembered cover of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” and a string-breakingly savage cover of fellow Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” but the crowd mostly chose to drink away the storm, lending the afternoon a “rain delay in the bleachers” vibe.
Fortunately, precipitation was down to a surly drizzle for the main event, where the band’s guestlist mixed nostalgia with contemporaries, and maneuvered groups accustomed to headlining into opener slots. The result felt something like the classic ’90’s Lollapalooza lineups, a murderer’s row of accomplished acts forced to make their case in 45 minutes or less in front of another band’s gear.
Mudhoney were the band most tightly linked with Pearl Jam’s Emerald City past, and the only one that could be considered an influence on their sound. But the grunge pioneers sounded refreshingly undated, the snotty punk sensuality of tracks like “Touch Me I’m Sick” still roaring like they were written recently. On a night with pretty thick frontman competition, Mark Arm set the bar unattainably high with his half-cocky, half-cramped stage moves.
In contrast to Mudhoney’s unhinged danger, Queens of the Stone Age brought a very precise evil to the stage. As dark clouds continued to threaten the poor kids on Alpine’s steep lawn, Josh Homme’s band (which released its first album on Stone Gossard’s label) fought back with their own lightning storm. Even if Homme’s jocky banter – “if we do this right, we can all get laid toniiight!” – would have been awkwardly out of place in the scene that birthed Pearl Jam, the stoner metal sound of “No One Knows” and “The Sky is Falling” fit right in as examples of a grunge afterlife.
The Strokes, by their own admission, were the kids of the main stage. Julian Casablancas confessed to first trying out his singing voice alongside a cassette of Ten, and broke street-cool character several times to sheepishly thank Pearl Jam for the invite. The set itself was the night’s anomaly – brisk (10 songs, 35 minutes), catchy, and the only thing approaching danceable if you don’t count fist-pumping. Largely ignoring this year’s Angles, the highlight of the greatest hits set was Eddie Vedder convincingly taking the chorus of “Juicebox” and bringing a little showmanship to the movement-averse New Yorkers. “Oh shit, he sings that so much better than I do,” Casabalancas moaned.
After a long day of mounting musical and meteorological tension, Pearl Jam couldn’t help but open with “Release,” giving the crowd its long-awaited chance for a communal arm-waving sing-along. Middle-age has found the band settling into its sweet spot, a stadium rock bombast kept tethered to the earth with punk-rock chords. Though the Ten material (“Deep,” “Once,” “Porch”) still got the biggest cheers, there was plenty of room to explore their deep catalog, culminating this night in versions of “Better Man” and “rearviewmirror” that were tastefully extended and triumphantly peaked.
For a gig that was very much preaching to the choir, Pearl Jam didn’t need to worry too much about pacing, and the setlist was accordingly packed with rarities (“Who You Are,” Vedder’s solo track “Setting Forth”) and guest spots (Casablancas on “Not For You,” Homme on the never-before-played “In the Moonlight,” George Harrison’s son Dhani on “State of Love and Trust”). But the mother of all special guests for grunge aficionados was the encore appearance by Chris Cornell, who first took the role of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood for “Stardog Champion,” then sang three songs from the Temple of the Dog memorial project for Wood. “Hunger Strike” was a gimmee, but “Reach Down” and “Say Hello to Heaven” made it a full-on reunion – only the third since 1992.
If Cornell couldn’t quite hit the ridiculously high notes of 20 years ago, it made it all the more poignant – why hide the wrinkles at an event celebrating long-term survival? The ghosts of mortality that lingered over the encore made for a bit of a bummer ending, despite the twin exorcisms of “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Kick Out the Jams” covers (the latter with Mudhoney). But it was Pearl Jam’s party, and they could cry if they wanted to.
WATCH: Pearl Jam with Josh Homme, “In The Moonlight”