Eddie Vedder and Josh Klinghoffer
Photo: Raymond Ahner

Pearl Jam Rise Above Adversity to Rock Oakland Righteously

It’s a cool evening in the East Bay, but the temperature promises to rise inside the Oakland Arena, where Pearl Jam will rock out for a two-night stand.

It’s a cool Thursday evening in the East Bay here on 12 May, but the temperature promises to rise inside the Oakland Arena, where Pearl Jam are set to rock out for a two-night stand. Anticipation is exceptionally high, with this being the alt-rock heroes’ first visit to the Bay Area since 2013. The shows were initially scheduled to take place in April 2020 until the whole spring tour was postponed indefinitely due to the onset of the damnable COVID-19 pandemic. 

But now Pearl Jam are finally back on the tour trail, and fans are rightfully ecstatic. The band’s storied history in the Bay Area includes a handful of acoustic sets at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit shows at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in the South Bay, starting in 1992 when singer Eddie Vedder stood up for something more with a stirring solo performance of Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am a Patriot”. The lyrics threw shade at both parties in America’s bi-hegemonic political duopoly right before that year’s presidential election. There was a clear sense that this singer from Seattle was not your typical rock vocalist – Eddie Vedder was on a deeper level.

It’s hard now to fathom that 30 years later – after Vedder also won hearts and minds by writing “Pro-Choice” on his arm with a Sharpie during Pearl Jam’s MTV Unplugged set – America suddenly faces a grim Handmaid’s Tale future with the Supreme Court’s reactionary move to strike down the Roe vs. Wade ruling. Vedder authored a moving pro-choice editorial for Spin in 1992, staking a claim for recasting rock ‘n’ roll as a medium for truth and rebellion like it had been in the 1960s. As dark forces try to pull America backward, it’s comforting to see Pearl Jam back on the road as flag bearers for the alternative rock revolution.

Why the band never visited California during sporadic touring from 2014 to 2019 remains a mystery, although San Francisco did receive a special sonic treat in 2016 when the historic Temple of the Dog tour made an electrifying stop at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. All the members of Pearl Jam, save for Vedder, were on stage since they comprised the alt-rock supergroup, along with the late great Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. Cornell was in peak form on that Temple of the Dog tour, yet would tragically depart the Earth in a most untimely manner in 2017. That underscored how fortunate alternative rock fans feel to still have Pearl Jam with us, and so the 2022 tour represents a most welcome next phase of the band’s illustrious career.

The tour has hit San Diego, Los Angeles, and Phoenix before moving on to Oakland, so fans know to show up on time to catch Vedder performing a solo acoustic song or two before the opening set from Josh Klinghoffer’s Pluralone. Vedder comes through with a heartfelt classic rock combo here in Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. The latter gem has long felt like a tailor-made Vedder anthem, and it sure hits the spot here. Klinghoffer’s one-person-band act as Pluralone is not without some charms, though it feels like a giant arena might not be the best setting. Klinghoffer will soon prove to have far greater value to add to the evening, though.

Mike McCready and Jeff Ament
Photo: Raymond Ahner

When Pearl Jam hit the stage with Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World”, there’s a sense they are shaking things up. It’s a song they’ve long utilized in the encore slot, so playing it as the opener with the house lights on provides a real jolt of energy to start the show as guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready rock the heavy power chords. Pearl Jam pause after “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town” as Vedder speaks of his affection for drummer Matt Cameron’s superhero powers, yet laments how the drummer caught the COVID-19 virus in Phoenix and was unable to accompany the band to Oakland. 

Vedder relates Pearl Jam’s concern of wondering whether they’d be able to play the show, but they felt cancellation or postponement was not an option. So they’ve enlisted some friends to help, and they’re out to make it a night to remember. Klinghoffer has opened the show as a pinch-hitter on the drums, quickly demonstrating his multi-instrumental talent. Cameron’s absence equates to a momentary sense of a letdown, what with him being one of the greatest drummers in modern rock. But Klinghoffer continues to help power the band admirably through rocking renditions of early 1990s classics “Why Go” and “Corduroy”, as it becomes clear that Pearl Jam still means business tonight. 

The audience immediately starts clapping in unison to the beat during the intro of “Corduroy”, as they typically do, but the vibe here feels like a strong desire to help power the band in a time of need. Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Mike McCready are rocking hard here, while Vedder dances around in front of the drum kit between verses like he’s feeding Klinghoffer some extra mojo. There’s still some concern over whether Klinghoffer will be able to keep it up with his furious drumming since he’s rocking very hard thanks to what has to be an incredible adrenaline rush. But the band has accounted for this, too, as Vedder introduces drummer Richard Stuverud, who will trade off segments with Klinghoffer throughout the night.  

It turns out that Stuverud is a long-time cohort of Jeff Ament, and he helps save the day here as the band charges through “Quick Escape” and “Super Blood Wolfmoon”, two of the strongest tracks from Pearl Jam’s 2020 Gigaton album. Vedder continues to lament the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that healthcare workers have had it the worst and dedicating “Nothing Man” to them. Stuverud also crushes it on the classic “Even Flow”, before Klinghoffer returns to the drum kit for a stellar sequence featuring “Given to Fly”, “Wishlist”, and “Do the Evolution” from 1998’s pivotal Yield.

Vedder invites fans who can play the drums to submit an audition video for the chance to play with the band the next night before getting back to rocking out with a powerful performance of “Not For You”. An enduring classic from 1994’s Vitalogy album, Vedder’s vocals lamenting posers and sellouts never fail to stir the soul. After the song, he notices a “pro-choice” sign in the audience and gives a shout-out as part of his introduction to “Seven O’Clock”. It’s a zeitgeisty ballad from Gigaton that speaks out to the decline of western civilization in the Trump era with a classic Pearl Jam call to arms.

Eddie Vedder
Photo: Raymond Ahner

“This is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance. This fucked-up situation calls for all hands on deck,” Vedder sings before a bluesy outro where he implores listeners on how “There’s much to be done.” It’s a cathartic “three chords and the truth” type of moment, continuing a long-time Pearl Jam tradition of the past three decades. Stuverud has returned, and as the band rocks on through “Jeremy” and “Porch” to close out the main set with another pair of classics from 1991’s breakthrough Ten album, there’s an exuberant sense of triumphing over adversity.

“We weren’t even sure if we were going to be able to play the show tonight,” Vedder relates when he returns for the encore sequence before praising the audience for their timely support. “This is the best crowd of the tour we’ve had, and it means so much to us,” Vedder says with gracious gratitude.  Such praise for the local audience can often be a rock cliche, but there’s no doubt about Vedder’s sincerity here. He praises the Bay Area for its long tradition of forward-thinking socio-political action, saying he wishes the rest of the country could be this progressive. He also laments how certain parts of the country are against love, leading into a heartwarming solo version of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. 

Pearl Jam return for another half hour of rock power featuring “Better Man”, a furious “Lukin”, and a scintillating “Animal”. They jam “Better Man” into the English Beat’s “Save It For Later”, with Vedder again thanking the audience as “the best crowd of the tour, just when we needed you” before emoting further as he sings, “Don’t runaway, don’t runaway, don’t runawayyyy…” There’s a genuine catharsis here with the band and audience reveling in the mutual spiritual support provided by this three-decade musical love affair.

A classic anthemic combo of “Alive” and the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” seems like it will close the show, but not quite. Vedder thanks everyone again, including Klinghoffer and Stuverud, before introducing fan Josh Arroyo, who has apparently been pulled from the crowd, passed a Covid test, and now fills the drum spot for a “Yellow Leadbetter” finale. The band receives a huge standing ovation as they take their final bow, with Vedder throwing a few more tambourines into the audience as he’s done throughout the encore, with the last one going to the lady with the “pro-choice” sign. 

The setlist has had a greatest hits flavor by seeming necessity, but the band has rocked vibrantly. It’s been a special night as Pearl Jam and their friends and fans have teamed up to snatch victory from the jaws of potential defeat. There’s still a second show since this stand next door to the Oakland Athletics baseball stadium is a doubleheader.

Stone Gossard
Photo: Raymond Ahner

Night Two at Oakland Arena – Friday, 13 May 2022

It’s a balmy Friday afternoon as Thursday night’s rocking show seems to have helped increase the region’s temperature, much as it did inside the Oakland Arena. Vedder’s solo acoustic song to open the evening is “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, which seems to invoke the vibe of getting by with a little help from your friends. Pearl Jam open with “The Long Road”, a simmering deep cut from 1995 that suggests the band will be stretching out tonight. That serves as a launchpad into a charged performance of “Given to Fly”, indicating that the band has strong intentions for the evening. The 1998 staple is played at nearly every Pearl Jam show, but putting the mystical tale of freedom and salvation in the second slot really energizes the arena.

The sense of increased urgency continues with the hard-rocking “Once” and Pink Floyd’s instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive” as a stepping stone into another hard-rocking “Corduroy” that ignites the night. Vedder pauses to re-introduce drummer Richard Stuverud, who is again teaming with Josh Klinghoffer to man the drum kit as Matt Cameron remains sidelined in Arizona by the COVID-19 virus. “Put me in, coach!” Stuverud apparently said that upon receiving the phone call, he continues to rock impressively here on Neil Young’s “Throw Your Hatred Down”. It’s another deep cut that the band jams out nicely, with lead guitarist Mike McCready shredding a hot solo before Stone Gossard tears it up on a smoking second solo of his own.

More than half of the setlist will feature fresh songs not played the previous night as the band richly rewards fans attending both nights. The show features a variety of coveted deep cuts, including the smoldering “Dissident”, which segues into “W.M.A.” just as on 1993’s Vs. album that sold nearly a million copies in its first week on sale. “W.M.A” serves as a portal to a sensational jam, with Stuverud and Ament getting into a deep groove. There’s a sense that something special is happening as Klinghoffer joins in on an extra percussion kit while the band jams on. The percussion jam keeps going as the band steps aside while Stuverud and Klinghoffer keep rocking in a dazzling manner, recalling the best drum jams from the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart in this very same building back in the early 1990s.

Vedder then introduces 18-year-old drummer Kai Neukermans, who won the audition advertised the previous night to sit in. The Tamalpais High senior plays in a local alt-rock cover band called the Alive, and he crushes it excellently here for what has to be quite a thrill on a spirited rendition of “Mind Your Manners” from 2013’s Lightning Bolt album. 

The crowd-pleasing deep cuts continue as Klinghoffer returns for a pair of rare tunes from 1998’s Yield, rocking hard on the album’s subversive opener “Brain of J.”, before balancing the aggression with the shimmering “Low Light”. The Yield album cover featured a traffic sign on a desolate highway, which became submerged under a flood upon opening up the album. “Brain of J.” alludes to such Earth changes, heavy weather, and conspiratorial shocks to society with lyrics that reference the theft of John F. Kennedy’s brain after his brutal assassination in Dallas that changed the world forever.  Vedder goes further in suggesting heavy weather is on the horizon when he sings the chorus, “The whole world will be different soon, the whole world will be relieved.” It was a thought-provoking song to launch one of the band’s most thought-provoking albums and the song remains ever electrifying here.

Eddie Vedder and Josh Klinghoffer
Photo: Raymond Ahner

After another incendiary jam on “Even Flow” with Mike McCready melting face, Vedder pauses to talk about COVID-19 and again pays tribute to the nation’s healthcare workers. He also directs some ire at 2020’s powers that be for politicizing the pandemic, saying, “Fuck you for dividing us,” in a comment clearly aimed at the Trump regime and Republican Party. That leads into a moving rendition of “Immortality”, followed by a raging run through the Yield staple “Do the Evolution”. Vedder rants righteously here in one of the band’s most insightful songs, spewing venom at the corporatocracy’s short-sighted race to the bottom (the song’s brilliant animated video from 1998 remains an insightful and ever zeitgeisty classic.)

The band tears through another coveted deep track with “State of Love and Trust” from 1992’s Singles soundtrack, a passionate gem from the golden age of grunge that never fails to ignite. The song features McCready and Gossard laying down some of their best two-guitar interplay, with the energy surging to the point that McCready starts running laps around the stage while playing! This leads to an explosive “Rearviewmirror” to close the main set with a surge.

The encore segment again concludes with powerful performances of “Alive” and “Baba O’Riley”, with Vedder saying he wishes he and the band could be traveling to Cincinnati over the weekend to support the Who’s return there for the first time since their fateful 1979 show where 11 fans died in a tragic stampede. Vedder asks everyone to send their positive energy to the Who in Ohio before the band launches into the seminal ode to “teenage wasteland”. McCready is so fired up that he runs laps around the stage again as Pearl Jam conclude their triumphant Oakland run with an electrifying blast of classic rock power.

Pearl Jam sends out a message the next day supporting the pro-choice movement, tweeting

(1/2) No one — not the government, not politicians, not the Supreme Court — should stand in the way of access to abortion, birth control, & contraceptives. In America, we believe in freedom, liberty, & privacy…

(2/2) We refuse to be intimidated by a losing minority; people should have the freedom to choose. Elections have consequences, join us. Text CHOICE to 855-812-VOTE”.

– Pearl Jam (Twitter)

Mike McCready, meanwhile, wakes up to a pro-choice march in downtown San Francisco and joins it, posting on Instagram in support of the movement that sees tens of thousands of people taking to the streets across the nation for a coordinated day of action under the banner of “Bans Off Our Bodies”

The social media support demonstrates once again that Pearl Jam don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk. They go on to play their Fresno show on 15 May, enlisting former drummer Dave Krusen to help out. But then the ongoing pandemic strikes again as bassist Jeff Ament tests positive for COVID-19, forcing the band to reluctantly cancel the spring tour’s last two shows in Sacramento and Las Vegas. Whether America is ready for arena concert tours must come under question, but there’s no doubt that Pearl Jam have risen to the occasion by keeping things going in Oakland and Fresno.

Jeff Ament
Photo: Raymond Ahner
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