For two days in the small farm town of East Troy, Wisconsin, there was a sense of peace and calm within the world. No debt talks, no wildfires, no unemployment woes … just 70,000 people united by one great moment in time. Pearl Jam, the stallion centerpiece of a decade of ebullience and fortuity, ushered small-town America back into a multi-day time warp with a wanderlust festival that celebrated the ’90s glory days of cultural wealth and personal sanctimony.
The sentiment tussled through the trees of the lush Alpine Valley Fairgrounds, through the jetlagged yet no less excited minds of the largely international crowd, and most of all rested in the heart of singer/frontman Eddie Vedder who internalized the overwhelming power of his lauded band’s birthday celebration to write an impromptu song that he exclusively debuted during an encore on the second, and final, day.
“To be so in love with life/ As deeply as we are now/ So glad me made it/ To when it all got good”, he crooned, alone on the stage yet flanked by thousands of eager fans who thunderously applauded his words. “After 20 years, we don’t feel older,” he said, saluting the crowd, “this is being reborn … a new beginning”.
It’s difficult to imagine there could be another beginning for a band who has accomplished so much even before it’s quarter life mark — fervently retaining its original members for two decades (save that little drummer roundabout) with guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron, who has become a permanent fixture since 1998; winning a cagematch with the Goliath Ticketmaster; spurring thousands of devotees to annually renew memberships in the long forgotten model of a fan club; and at one time, holding the record for selling the most copies of an album in its first release week. But yet to reach the point where it “all got good”, why stop there?
The unofficial motto of the weekend was a unanimous “who knows when we’ll do this again”, and as such, Pearl Jam took the liberty to create a fest that was part party and part history lesson. While inside the venue a well-curated museum hosted artifacts documenting the band’s lifeline, outside, longtime friends joined the weekend’s entertainment lineup: among them, The Frames/Swell Season frontman Glen Hansard, X mainstay John Doe, rock progeny Liam Finn (son of Crowded House’s Neil Finn) and thenewno2’s Dhani Harrison (son of Beatle George), plus main stage performers Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age and the Strokes — all of whom were celebrating their gilded years as well.
“Welcome to Queens 14, Strokes 12, Liam Finn 14, Mudhoney 23, John Doe 34,” Vedder said as he thanked the openers when Pearl Jam finally took the stage on Night One, no less exhausted from having been the unsurprising “guest star” during just about everyone’s set. In much the same way the early Seattle scene was a musical swinger’s paradise, the festival acts swapped spit throughout the weekend, Vedder in one corner dueting with Glen Hansard on the reverent “Falling Slowly” (from the Hansard-propelling movie Once), acting as a high-jumping backup dancer/vocalist on the Strokes’ “Juicebox”, and being relegated to cowbell duty on the Queens of the Stone Age’s “Little Sister”. When Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme joined Julian Casablancas during the Strokes set, it was like the final scene from Grease, the preppies uniting with the greasers; but when Vedder joined Casablancas, it quickly became a snapshot from The Godfather.
“This is the best opening experience of our lives”, Casablancas proclaimed with so much fluff you would have sworn he would have been paid to read from some invisible cue cards. “Pearl Jam was the first band I ever played along with… Man, I can’t sing. Eddie has the best voice ever. Best singer, best voice, best looking, man I hate him”.
Casablancas quickly proved his point, the Strokes and all the other acts of the weekend being obscenely great filler before the long-awaited feature presentation. Although the effort was there, not even Casablanca’s neon green hi-tops could distract from the ubiquitous clockwatching each day. Although — for the astute observer — in a bizarre way, each of the bands on the lineup silently highlighted one ring of Pearl Jam’s growing tree, the roots of each individual style representing the branches of the band’s evolution over the years: The Strokes reminiscent of Pearl Jam’s early garage rock foundation; Queens hinting at the more melodic exploration on Vitalogy; John Doe’s playful rhymes like Vedder’s recent ukulele album and singer-songwriters Finn and Hansard representative of the more laidback folk anthems on the Vedder’s acclaimed Into the Wild soundtrack.
The idea became further tangible when the curtains finally parted for Pearl Jam’s set, the stage designed with towers of Lego-like speakers stacked like the building blocks of the band’s rise to the top. As a lush piano intro filled the air, Vedder, Gossard, Ament, McCready and Cameron stood as shapeless silhouettes on the dusk stage before the first notes of the first song (the biggest question of the night) were played. Dressed in a thick flannel perfect for the rainy Indian summer night, Vedder started the set with Ten’s “Release” before moving into a collector’s edition of mostly rarities that the diehard denizens erstwhile knew from merely the opening riff.
“We could play just about anything and you fuckers would know it,” Vedder joked of the setlist that was at best a risky move, especially when Night Two ticket holders were treated to the more stable ‘Greatest Hits’. Night One careened through “Do the Evolution”, “Not For You”, “Once”, an acoustic sing-a-long of “Betterman”, a cover of “Arms Aloft” (Joe Strummer), “In My Tree” and “State of Love and Trust”. It wasn’t until the encore that the momentum picked up again with a Mother Love Bone/Temple of the Dog reunion with unannounced but much rumored guest Chris Cornell. In a strange move, Vedder vacated the stage while the veteran Cornell, straight off a solo acoustic tour and Soundgarden reunion, received an open platform to perform “Say Hello 2 Heaven”, “Stardog Champion”, and “Reach Down” before Vedder returned for a hailed duet of “Hunger Strike” that could have time-stamped the 20-year-old original. Cornell would return for Day Two with a repeat of “Hunger Strike” and Temple of the Dog numbers “Call Me a Dog”, “Reach Down”, and “All Night Thing”.
If Day One seemed like a rehearsal at times, Day Two was Pearl Jam’s epic finale. Gone was the moody weather and cloudy setlist in place of fair weather and following seas of songs and stories that have made the band a necessary notch in music history. “Daughter”. “Red Mosquito”. “Black”. “Alive”. There was no pearl left uncovered in the extended jam session that broadcast the swift musicianship of the quartet who at times towered over Vedder’s diminutive stature. The vacant spotlight loved McCready whose symphonious guitar solos provided the lingering tastes of an emblematic musical last supper, no more evidenced than on the final riff of “Jeremy”. As McCready wound up his instrument for the final stretch of “Even Flow”, Vedder watched dutifully from the wings, swigging a brown bottle of beer while trying to tousle his head of shorn hair.
“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” was a personal request by Dhani Harrison who joined the band on stage for the number, prompting Vedder to relay the story of first meeting Harrison as a young boy who stood beside his dad at a Bob Dylan tribute, which Pearl Jam played 19 years earlier; it was the same night the band first met “Uncle Neil.”
When John Doe later joined Vedder for a duet of X’s “New World”, the two engaged in a conversation about patriotism, the West Memphis 3 (“If you didn’t trust us on that then fuck you, you should have known better,” demanded Vedder, the influential supporter who helped free the incarcerated trio) and then record stores. “It’s like the last living tree giving out fresh apples,” Vedder said dedicating a song to independent store owners and buyers, “so keep it watered and happy.”
If Pearl Jam is ready for a new beginning, it’s ready for them; except this time it’s not as forefathers of a genre but forebearers of music’s future at a time when it’s still getting good.
“When you’re a kid, you think music is such a powerful force but there’s adults around you who are practical and say that’s not going to happen, that’s a dream, you’ve gotta have connections, get a job in construction,” Vedder recalled in one of his more somber moments of the weekend. “All of us on this stage went through that, but we told them there’d be days like this”.