Ohana Festival Pearl Jam
Photo: Sydney Gawlick and Michael Kravetsk / Courtesy of the Ohana Festival

Pearl Jam Keep the Flame Burning at the Ohana Festival

Seeing Pearl Jam in 2021 feels like chicken soup for the soul for those who feel a religious sentiment about the ’90s alternative rock revolution.

It’s an overcast yet still balmy day by the Pacific Ocean here at Doheny State Beach in Orange County on Sunday, 26 September, as music fans fill the park for the conclusion of this weekend’s Ohana Festival. Festival curator Eddie Vedder has headlined the previous two nights, but this will only be Pearl Jam‘s second show of the year following their 2021 debut the previous week at the Sea.Hear.Now Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Due to the postponement of the band’s 2020 spring tour, tonight will also be Pearl Jam’s first California show since 2013. Thus a lot of eager alternative rock fans have made their way here to the tranquil Southern California beach town of Dana Point.

Attendees are greeted at the festival entrance with larger-than-life replicas of the new Pearl Jam Funko Pop! action figures, which lends a truly momentous vibe to the scene due to those eight long years since Pearl Jam last rocked the Golden State. It’s not like they didn’t play any shows since their last national tour in 2013, though why they never made it back to California from 2014-19 remains a mystery. Pearl Jam’s spring 2020 tour was one of the first big dominoes to fall when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but now the grunge heroes of yesteryear are back in action and there’s a buzz in the air conjuring the seminal alt-rock era of the 1990s.

The Sunday lineup includes an eclectic undercard with sets from Jade Bird, Mon LaFerte, Sharon Van Etten, Yola, and Brandi Carlile before Pearl Jam is set to hit the stage around 8:20 pm. An alt-rock festival this is not, however, and the mood of the crowd through the afternoon is decidedly laid back. Jade Bird and Sharon Van Etten both deliver solid performances at the Tiki Stage, but it seems like most fans are content to chill while biding their time for the main event.

Ohana Festival
Photo: Sydney Gawlick / Courtesy of the Ohana Festival

The vibe sparks during Yola’s soulful set when she welcomes Brandi Carlisle to the stage for a duet on “Be My Friend” from Yola’s new album Stand for Myself. Another stellar team-up occurs when Celisse Henderson joins Yola as well. Celisse was on the Ohana bill on Friday and has also been winning hearts and minds in the jam-rock community due to her collaborations with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio as a touring member of his Ghosts of the Forest project in 2019. Here she duets with Yola and rocks some wicked lead guitar too, as the pair prove to be a dynamic duo.

Brandi Carlile invokes the grunge vibe when she and her band take the stage by boldly teasing the opening of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”. It almost seems like she’s about to actually play it before shifting gears into the Americana-flavored “Dreams”. Carlile is in high spirits as she welcomes Yola and Celisse back to the stage for the bluesy “Raise Hell”. A mesmerizing cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” further captivates the audience, before Carlile welcomes two more special guests for a truly climactic conclusion. 

It’s a grunge dream come true as Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Matt Cameron join Carlile for a stunning rendition of Soundgarden’s “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”. Carlile’s own material rarely hints at such an inner rock goddess, but she paid tribute to the late great Chris Cornell and Soundgarden when she recorded the song along with “Black Hole Sun” (with help from Cameron and Kim Thayil) for a Record Store Day release in 2020. 

It’s all too clear here that the Seattle native has a compelling soft spot for the grunge as she belts out the classic tune from 1991’s Badmotorfinger, arguably the greatest grunge album of all time. The chance to hear a Soundgarden song performed live is quite rare since Cornell’s untimely departure from the Earth in 2017, so it’s quite a treat to hear Carlile crush the classic tune here upon the 30-year anniversary of the album’s release this fall.

Pearl Jam at Ohana Festival 2021
Photo: Sydney Gawlick and Michael Kravetsk / Courtesy of the Ohana Festival

Pearl Jam’s breakthrough first album Ten was also released in 1991 and it’s understandable if some Gen-Xers might have a hard time fathoming where the past three decades have gone. But one of the things that have made growing into middle age more tolerable for Gen-X is the fact that Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam have grown along with us to keep the alt-rock torch burning, as opposed to how so many of their ‘90s peers burned out far too soon. 

Vedder was understandably reluctant about having a “voice of a generation” label thrust upon him in the ‘90s, but he seems to have matured into largely accepting the prestigious role over the years. If one spends a little time watching Youtube videos of Vedder interview footage from the ‘90s and Bob Dylan interview footage from the ‘60s and ‘70s, the similarity in their artistic sensibilities and cultural sensitivities become apparent. These are two artists who couldn’t help but be moved to write songs filled with thought-provoking social commentary on the world around them and few have done it better.

Pearl Jam is clearly eager to perform new material from 2020’s Gigaton album, with five of the set’s first six songs coming from the new album. “Dance of the Clairvoyants” finds bassist Jeff Ament laying down an infectious groove, with the guitars leaving plenty of space on one of the band’s more unique tunes. “Quick Escape” stands out as well with a heavy groove and hot guitars as lead guitarist Mike McCready starts tearing it up with melty hot psychedelic riffage on a smoking jam as he will throughout the evening. A fuse is lit here as McCready stakes a claim he’ll keep building on for the night’s MVP award. The mid-tempo psychedelia of “Seven O’Clock” also sounds great here by the ocean, as Vedder sings a lament for the decline of western civilization and how “there’s much to be done.” 

At one point, Vedder takes a moment to compliment California on leading the way in vaccination rates to lower COVID-19 cases and it feels great to think that this helped the band feel safe about playing a large festival here in the Golden State. 

It’s like a magical portal to the alternative rock revolution of the ‘90s when the band launches into the classic “Corduroy” from 1994’s Vitalogy. The song never fails to ignite a flame and it’s no different here as Ohana rocks out. There was something about this song that stood out from the first spin of the album back in the fall of ‘94 and Vedder’s urgent tone continues to resonate through the decades. Written as a lament on the perils of too much fame as Pearl Jam became one of the biggest bands in the world in just a few years, there’s also a deeper visionary subtext around collective angst over the superficial consumerism driving society’s race to the bottom. This is a big part of what the alternative rock revolution was rebelling against and Vedder taps into it here when he adlibs a change in the lyrics, singing “Can’t buy what I want because it’s free” and then altering it to “Can’t buy what I want because it’s PEACE!”

Pearl Jam
Photo: Sydney Gawlick and Michael Kravetsk / Courtesy of the Ohana Festival

The band continues to mix ‘90s classics and deep cuts with fresh new material as the heartfelt ballad “Alright” precedes “Daughter” from 1993’s Vs. album, followed by the bluesy rock of “Red Mosquito” with renowned rock photographer Danny Clinch providing some guest harmonica. “Super Blood Wolfmoon” is another rocking gem from Gigaton that ignites the night with a classic sounding Pearl Jam flavor, as Vedder sings out in high spirits over the infectious chord progressions before McCready melts face again.

Pearl Jam fans know they’re going to get a mix of classic fan favorites and new songs from the latest album, along with tantalizing anticipation over which deep cuts will make it into the setlist. “I Got Id” (aka “I Got Shit”) from the band’s 1995 Merkinball EP fills the bill here, a raw dirge that shifts into a major key chorus featuring some of Vedder’s classic cathartic vocals. 

The ever-incendiary “Even Flow” blows up the night as the band rocks out on one of the breakthrough songs from the debut album that propelled them to international stardom. McCready shines again here along with fellow guitarist Stone Gossard, shredding some of the hottest lead guitar that will be heard on Planet Earth this year or any other. The band follows McCready into an electrifying extended jam that gets so psychedelic that the visuals of McCready on the jumbotron screens start to look like an acid trip with double vision and tracers. 

The set continues to build strong momentum as the band goes back into deep cut territory with Vitalogy’s bluesy soul-searching ballad “Immortality”, as Vedder sings of his troubles trying to find comfort in this world. Then just when fans might start to fear that 1998’s classic Yield album might get inexplicably left on the shelf, the band comes through with a fulfilling double shot. The ever-majestic “Given to Fly” is a fitting tune here by the beach, as Vedder sings of a wave that delivers wings to the song’s noble protagonist. The uplifting tune can almost make listeners feel like they can fly, featuring some of the band’s best songcraft.

Pearl Jam
Photo: Sydney Gawlick and Michael Kravetsk / Courtesy of the Ohana Festival

The stirring “Do the Evolution” still feels just as timely here in 2021 as it did in 1998, the mark of a true rock classic. The band mixes grunge, punk and deep social commentary here on one of the greatest protest songs in rock history as Vedder rants righteously against the corporatocracy race to the bottom and the dark forces in society that continue to value profits over people as the Earth burns toward a climate change meltdown.

Vedder then welcomes Brandi Carlile back to the stage for an instant classic duet on “Better Man” that shines through the night to close out the set. Their voices blend together like magic for a uniquely heart-warming rendition of the song, leading to a genuine call and response section with the audience that feels truly inspired. 

A four-song encore opens with a bustout of the rare “Let Me Sleep”, followed by the classic “Black” which features another deep jam that takes on a Zeppish flavor thanks to the great chemistry between Cameron, Ament, McCready and Gossard.  If there’s a song that’s a cross between a classic and a deep cut, “Crazy Mary” is it and the band delivers a great take on it here with Vedder emoting at his best. Producer Andrew Watt joins the band for the climactic jam on “Alive” as the band rocks the timeless classic in ever-electrifying fashion with multiple kick-ass guitar solos over the huge groove. It’s only too bad there wasn’t time for Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which was apparently scratched from the setlist due to time constraints only to re-appear the following weekend when Pearl Jam would headline two more nights for “Ohana Encore” weekend.

The two-hour set has more than delivered though and it feels like chicken soup for the soul for those who feel a religious sentiment about the alternative rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the ’90s. Pearl Jam’s longevity and influence upon the global music scene have proven that the movement was far more than just a trend. Seeing the band now has a similarly energizing and inspiring effect as it did in the ’90s, a true blessing in an insane world where such inspiration can often feel like it’s in short supply. 

Ohana Festival 2021
Photo: Katrina Barber / Courtesy of the Ohana Festival