I’m not the world’s biggest Pearl Jam fan, nor do I really like huge crowds. But I will never pass up the opportunity to commune with the band and their diehards in concert, both because Pearl Jam is absolutely, unstoppably fantastic live, and because its attitude and relationship with fans is so admirable. I’ve never seen anything like it, and witnessing it makes me feel almost preternaturally positive. It’s like a cleanse, but without the hot water and cayenne pepper.
Part of that is the music, certainly. There are Pearl Jam songs and albums that I’d rank among my favorite music: Vitalogy, “Indifference,” No Code, “Go.” The album Yield, from 1998, isn’t exactly at the top of that list, but when the band decided to play the entire thing start to finish at their Milwaukee show earlier this week, it felt strangely right, because it was indicative of what Pearl Jam shows aren’t. They aren’t choreographed spectacles with lighting cues and set-in-stone set lists. Every time is different. Every show at least has the potential to be special, or to go off the rails a little bit. It’s more concert than show, a small but important difference.
Let’s not fool ourselves, Pearl Jam concerts aren’t exactly chaotic, either. Maybe a deep cut will bubble to the surface and fail to inspire much from either the band or audience. But even in those moments it feels like everybody’s in on a secret: The diehards in the standing-room general-admission area at the front of the stage get to hear a rarity, the band gets to stretch its legs. It happened during Yield’s rarely performed (for good reason) “Push Me Pull Me.” Eddie Vedder even jokingly introduced the song—which features as much spoken-word as singing—by saying that it wasn’t a radio single, and that it was from “back when we had the trust of our audience.” He paused, then sort of chuckled. “We still do.”
He knows his audience well enough that he can make that joke and be understood. There’s a bond among fans and band that has developed in the years since Pearl Jam was at the top of the radio and sales world. There’s a trust, as well as an implicit guarantee: You may not get all the hits on any given night, but you’re never going to get a rote performance. (And you’ll get a least a smattering of the hits.)
The fact that Pearl Jam performances regularly run three hours or more—this one, at the Bradley Center, was about 3:15—means there’s time to get loose, too. And even though the set list can change drastically from night to night, there are so many showstoppers in the band’s 10-album catalog that there’s no single crutch to lean on. This Milwaukee stop featured almost half of 1992’s smash Ten, and while I don’t know that I ever need to hear “Jeremy” on record again, it was revelatory here.
What comes across—even through the dark subject matter of those early years—is a sense of joy and camaraderie that Pearl Jam clearly still gets from playing in front of people. When Vedder says that it feels like a special night—and yes, he probably says that most nights—it’s because he means it, and because it is. The songs change, the audience changes, and weird things are allowed to happen. Vedder stopped the show to acknowledge that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was in attendance. He invited Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen onstage to perform The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and then teased him about throwing picks everywhere. (“Rick never gets lost in the forest. He just follows the trail of picks out.”)
He stopped again later to acknowledge the audience members who started the Wishlist Foundation, a charity group inspired by the band’s own charity group. He accepted a cheesehead from an audience member with a request written on it, but refused to put it on because, “I’m from Chicago.” (Guitarist Stone Gossard donned it for the encore.) And then Vedder invited the crowd to record a video birthday greeting to his friend Tom Petty. These things only happened on this night, just like Yield only happened on this night.
And they only happened because they were allowed to, because there’s just enough breathing room at Pearl Jam shows for spontaneous flights of fancy to manifest. Again, it’s not a show, it’s a concert, and that’s an important distinction here, because when bands are selling out basketball arenas, it’s extremely difficult to hold on to that kind of dynamic. The closest analog I can think of—and I may lose some cred by comparing the two bands here—is Fugazi, a band I’ve seen about the same number of times that I’ve seen Pearl Jam, around a dozen each. While Fugazi never played arenas, they still played big places without creating distance between each other or the audience. There was always the sense with Fugazi, as there is with Pearl Jam, that the band members—no matter how far apart they are on those huge stages—were absolutely locked into each other, so that it was impossible for anyone to switch on the auto-pilot.
And yes, both of those bands had their share of drunk lunkheads at shows, from ice-cream eating motherfuckers to guys who can’t stop yelling “Eddie!” But for the most part, watching a Pearl Jam show is like going to a huge sporting event where there’s only one team playing and everybody goes home feeling at least a little better than when they walked in—performers and audience alike. Sure, that takes away the twin excitements of victory and defeat, but it replaces them with something much rarer: a shared uplift at the creation of something powerful and beautiful, the music itself.