Music review

In Pearl Jam show at Jiffy Lube Live, Eddie Vedder & Co. are plaid to the bone

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Pearl Jam concert is made up of two kinds of moments: Eddie Vedder breathing in, and Eddie Vedder breathing out.

When he inhales, you have the chance to hear a reliable American rock band chip away at its 20-year songbook, earnest and workmanlike. When he exhales, that band feels small and far away, dwarfed by whatever vowels happen to be exploding from Vedder's throat. At age 45, his lungs are thrilling twin turbines that refuse to grow old.

The man roared for more than two heroic hours on Thursday evening as Pearl Jam kicked off the summer concert season at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow -- the mega-concert venue formerly known as Nissan Pavilion.

Vedder's performance reaffirmed the claim made by the band's most recent album, "Backspacer": that the Seattle statesmen are ready to seethe and snarl and stomp like it's the Clinton years all over again.

But first, Pearl Jam began the evening with what felt like a big group hug: the strummy 1993 ballad "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." The 25,000-plus audience began singing along almost instantly. When Vedder reached the song's apogee -- "I just want to scream, 'Hello!' " -- the house lights flared. It felt like a big finish, but Pearl Jam's sprawling 29-song set was just getting started.

Warm fuzzies out of the way, the band barreled into a scorching "World Wide Suicide" and a lean "Got Some." Sporting picnic-tablecloth plaid, a leonine beard and a bramble of brown hair, Vedder gained momentum with each song, reaching full gale force with "Present Tense." When he unleashed the song's most walloping "whoa," fans threw their hands toward the sky, as if trying to grab the sound as it flew past.

The band was plenty kinetic onstage, too -- Vedder and bassist Jeff Ament punctuated the big crescendos with leaping scissor kicks while guitarist Stone Gossard shook his hair like a wet dog.

Lead guitarist Mike McCready, however, was a major distraction. He often marched around in little circles, executed ill-timed jumping jacks and twirled his fingers in the air as if playing an entirely separate concert inside his head -- only returning to Earth in time for a gratuitous guitar solo.

Tellingly, one crucial player soaked up the least amount of spotlight -- drummer Matt Cameron, who provided the rhythmic super-glue necessary to keep Gossard and McCready's intricate guitar riffs from floating off to Noodleville.

Vedder's howl had a similar effect, and remained most effective when he wasn't even singing a word. Some examples:

"EEEEEGHHH-HREEE!" (in the coda of "Black").

"MMMMRRRGGGGH!" (in the refrain of "Even Flow").

"YREAH-EY-YREAH-HEE!" (in the intro of "The Fixer").

That last song stood out. In the band's two-decade trajectory, Pearl Jam has gone from angsty rumination about paternal strife to lashing out at the powers that be (first ticketing-behemoth Ticketmaster, later the Bush administration). Today, the band seems to have taken a new tack, embracing a bristling sense of optimism. "When something's lost," Vedder sang, "I wanna fight to get it back again." He sounded like a convincingly righteous do-gooder -- and not one who's ready to give up without a fight.

The band brought out its best-loved songs during two extended encores. "Alive," "Spin the Black Circle," "Garden," "Why Go," "Better Man" -- fans seemed more elated with each passing chorus.

As the clock struck 11, the group ripped through the Dead Boys classic "Sonic Reducer" -- and on came the house lights. Time to wrap it up, gentlemen. They eked out requisite closer "Yellow Ledbetter," and McCready fell into a moment of Hendrix worship, offering a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his Fender Stratocaster.

From a band that seems like it never wants to leave the stage, this might have been the only song that had no chance of being cut off.

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