A sign of the times was posted throughout Rupp Arena last night, a curious testament to the staying power of Pearl Jam. It read thus: “Due to the nature of moshing and body surfing, we ask that you refrain from such activities due to the injuries that could occur.”
No concerns there. Together for 25 years and with frontman Eddie Vedder now an agile 51, there was little chance the heralded Seattle band was going to get too physical in facing a massive Rupp crowd of 18,000. What one witnessed instead was a six-man unit (four founding members, drummer Matt Cameron and keyboardist Boom Gaspar) that played a no frills program full of exact and tireless intensity. For nearly three hours, Vedder and company paced themselves with tunes of punkish immediacy and, at times, folkish intimacy.
The band bridged a championed past with a perhaps less chronicled present at the show’s onset. First up was a pair of tunes from Pearl Jam’s most recent album, 2013’s Lightning Bolt. The record’s show-opening title song might have suggested a moderation of the band’s coarser drive from years gone by. But that was before Pearl Jam’s ace in the hole, guitarist Mike McCready, let loose with a series of siren like squalls. Such detonations would become familiar artillery throughout the evening. All of that, however, proved a set-up for Mind Your Manners, a sonic rampage of rifling guitar runs that fell between punk and metal coupled with lyrics delivered by Vedder with the rapidity and drive of a jackhammer.
Then the past came flooding in with gems from the band’s first two albums – Ten’s Why Go and Vs.’ Animal. Instead of the bountiful angst that seemed to grip the songs over two decades ago, last night’s performances were muscular and precise without losing any of the original versions’ abundant vitality. The contact the songs made with the crowd, as well as the audience energy then hurled back to the stage, was instantaneous.
The artist-audience connection, in fact, was considerable throughout the performance. Sometimes it was obvious, as in Corduroy, where Vedder and the crowd engaged in a séance-like call and response wail that led into the song’s volatile refrain (“Everything has chains, absolutely nothing’s changed”). Ditto for the back-and-forth chant that distinguished Daughter. From there, the interaction took on less visible forms, like an encore cover of The Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away that the audience sang along with as fervently as it did on most of the warhorse originals, and a blistering, eight minute set closing update of Rearviewmirror. During the latter, the steady roar of the audience was as integral to the unrelenting groove as McCready’s ragged guitar ambience, Vedder’s seething vocals and the drum eruption from Cameron that cut loose just as the song seemed like it was finally going to settle.
There were scores of other delights, to boot. A cover of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb (dedicated to Louisville author Mark Wilkerson and his book on paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young) bled into an equally ferocious Do the Evolution. The one-two punch served as the highlight of two extended encore segments that accounted for nearly half of the show’s length while Betterman, played near the show’s conclusion (with a nod to the ‘80s English Beat hit Save It For Later), served as an affirmation of all the unsettled celebration that came before it. A lament of sorts to begin with, the song ran from bittersweet eulogizing to a finale chorus of pure rock ‘n’ roll jubilation. Such was the coarse Pearl Jam rode steadily last night – a journey of still-vital rock urgency, sans the moshing