At what point does a band cross over from merely great to iconic? I found myself asking that question at Pearl Jam's first of four shows at Los Angeles' Gibson Amphitheater on Tuesday.
Is it something as simple as when they get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? When they've reached a certain sales threshold? When their influence rubs off on a new generation of artists? The first two are arbitrary markers that indicate nothing but politics and a great marketing team; the latter carries more weight, but is too broad a definition.
For me, Pearl Jam became iconic last night in a concert that was so transcendent my heart is still racing. And that has happened every time I've seen the band over the past 18 years. Pearl Jam is a band I've followed since "Ten" came out in 1991. So many critics consider the group in a lesser light than its Seattle compadres Nirvana. Not me. Even before Kurt Cobain died and ascended into sainthood, Pearl Jam's feral music, bolstered by Eddie Vedder's growl that was always more expressive and seductive than menacing, spoke to me in a visceral way that Nirvana's did not.
And is still does. Last night, Pearl Jam dug out a number of songs from that nearly 20-year old masterpiece. At first, "Even Flow" seemed rushed, as if the band couldn't wait to get through it after playing the song for a thousand times already, but then Mike McCready went into an extended guitar solo that had its share of sizzle--he played much of it with his guitar behind his head--but was 90% pure steak. Muscular and vibrant, the solo reinvigorated a performance that could have turned into a rote exercise. The turgid "Black"-a worthy candidate in the break-up song hall of fame-- had the heaviness of a suffocating blanket. Remarkably, "Alive," Vedder's autobiographical tale of discovering the man he believed was his father is really his stepfather, remains a surging, unapologetic affirmation to life.
As much as last night was about delving into a strong catalog--PJ pulled out such rarities as "Tremor Christ" the "Rats"--the evening was about showcasing the new songs from "Backspacer," which, coincidentally, had debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 earlier in the day. It was the band's first No. 1 on the chart in 13 years.
"By the way, we got news today that the album we put out is No. 1," Vedder said more than an hour into the concert. "We had a couple of those a while ago. Back then, we just didn't give a s---. All these years later, we still don't give a s---. But a few of us have kids. We're not going to explain what it means, but your dad's f---ing No. 1 ... and don't you forget it!"
The good news is the "Backspacer" songs fit perfectly into Pearl Jam's body of work-even as the band finds its sea legs with the new material: last night was the live debut of "Backspacer's" "Force of Nature." First single (and mega Modern Rock hit) "The Fixer" ricocheted off the walls, while "Got Some" and "Amongst the Waves" sounded sure and confident. For the first encore, Vedder brought out a string section for the luscious "Just Breathe" and the wrenching "The End." He prefaced the latter by taking a swig from a bottle of wine he'd brought out during McCready's "Even Flow" tour-de-force. "It's always good to take a sip of red wine before you sing a song about death," he declared. And what a song it is with its lyrics about slipping away and leaving those behind despite a desperate desire to stay.
Despite the inclusion of a few ballads-very few, actually. PJ stayed away from oldies-but-goodies like "Daughter" and "Better Man"-the two-hour plus show was all about building an impenetrable wall of sound that surrounded the band and the 6,000 concert-goers from the outside world-even if it was only for a short while.
For a few more of my thoughts about the show, go here.