"I'd like to make a toast to the fine folks at BP," Eddie Vedder said, raising a bottle of wine at last night's show in New Orleans. "Send your sons and daughters to clean up your fucking mess." While Pearl Jam rocked the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico crept closer to the Louisiana coast. Even Vedder's wardrobe spoke to the environmental crisis: he wore a Mr. Bill Show T-shirt — the character's creator, Walter Williams, actively supports protecting Louisiana's endangered wetlands.
Jazz Fest has often showcased Rock and Roll Hall of Famers from the '60s and '70s, so Pearl Jam's booking was controversial among the festival's faithful. The band's wall-of-guitar sound stands in stark contrast to this year's other marquee act, Simon & Garfunkel, who played the weekend before. Simon & Garfunkel brought back nostalgic hits, while Vedder mocked big oil and celebrated members of the 256th Infantry Division, who were watching a live feed of the show in Iraq. Guitarist Mike McCready paced urgently, and Vedder climbed off the stage to offer a drink to those in the front row, then left it again during a powerful "Alive" to meet the fans a second time. Pearl Jam slammed the show to a close with the MC5's explosive "Kick Out the Jams."
New Orleans was the start of the band's spring tour schedule, and they launched it with their cover of the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock'n'Roll Star." The set reached back to Ten for "Alive," "Even Flow" and a raging, set-closing "Why Go," and included three from last year's Backspacer: "Got Some," "Unthought Known" and "Supersonic."
The band exited the stage after just over an hour, but soon returned to start a six-song encore with "Tremor Christ." The song gave Vedder the chance to muse about the band's time in New Orleans. "Outside of going to jail, we've had some good experiences here," he said. Parts of Vitalogy, including "Tremor Christ," were recorded in the Crescent City in 1994, and he was arrested for getting in a drunken bar fight in 1993. "Looking at all of you, I can't be the only one here who's spent the night in the New Orleans jail," he joked.
The band's attempts to engage the soldiers watching in Iraq were slightly stymied by a sound delay, but the frontman was determined to deliver the full rock & roll experience from oceans away. "I wish you'd have a beer," Vedder said at one point. "You've earned it."
Check out My Morning Jacket's New Orleans Jazz Fest journey in the next issue of Rolling Stone, on sale May 12th.