As we mentioned last week, Pearl Jam made an appearance at the Austin City Limits music festival. I caught the veteran rockers in St. Louis, Missouri a couple of nights before. Across the marathon three-hour set, the band touched on most corners of their almost 25-year career. The performance was great, but Pearl Jam fans know that’s usually the case, so there’s not much to unearth that hasn’t already been excavated a thousand times over.
The only exception was Eddie Vedder trotting out his debut of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ — a song he has subsequently done at almost every show since — because just in case you somehow forgot, Eddie Vedder is anti-war. I probably would have preferred some buried Pearl Jam rarity, but since I’ve long accepted that society loves ‘Imagine’ more than I ever will, I doubt there were many detractors.
Pearl Jam deals with the same issues that most arena-level rock bands do as they age: balancing the desire for a string of worldwide hits with band loyalists’ desire for those lesser known jewels. It’s a legitimate problem, because for every aging grunge rocker who paid $100 to hear ‘Even Flow,’ ‘Jeremy,’ and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,’ there is a committed superfan equally excited for the band to pull out ‘Who You Are,’ ‘MFC,’ ‘Thumbing My Way,’ and any other number of live rarities.
So, Pearl Jam solves the issue by the most logical means available: they play epically-long shows. As you can see by the setlist, they played in excess of thirty songs. When you consider how much energy the six-man outfit still stirs up on any given night, this is almost dangerous. After the trifecta of opening scene setters, the band launched into eleven consecutive rockers, which made the sing-a-long ‘Daughter’ feel like the appearance of an oasis just as you were on the verge of dying.
And it pretty much stayed that way most of the night. I always want to hear more from their 1996-2002 window — No Code, Yield, Binaural, Riot Act — because I think it’s their strongest era. But between playing the required hits and a desire to showcase the band’s newest material (Lightning Bolt, 2013), there’s not always time to bring light to every little corner of their catalog.
As the cracks of age continue to slowly emerge in Vedder’s vocal chords, the next step will be to see if the band can change their live performance to meet those impending restrictions, or whether they soon become just time-aged rockstars hanging onto an image that age and nature will no longer allow. It’s going to be all about adaptation.
In other words, “it’s evolution, baby.”