Pearl Jam Lights Up On Kick Off

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In the more than five years since Pearl Jam have mounted a national tour, the musical landscape -- and their place in it -- has changed considerably. No longer are they the commercial powerhouse whose first-week SoundScan numbers shatter records; some six months after release, Yield, their latest album, just barely remains in the Top 100, having only recently attained platinum status. One of the questions this tour would have to address is: How will the band respond to this situation?

Based on their tour's kick-off performance at the Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Mont., the answer is: To be rock stars.

Of course, they're not going to be your usual rock stars -- this is Pearl Jam, after all. While they might cloak themselves in mystery and a certain shabby gentility (the stage set consisted of a half dozen seven-foot-tall wrought iron candlesticks and a few talismanic toys -- a ventriloquist's dummy, gold lamé bat wings and a Balinese incense burner -- strewn over the amps), they arrive with none of the fanfare or posturing other bands revel in. They simply walk onstage and plug in. The opening song, "Corduroy," is similarly self-effacing: a descending, slow-burning riff with lyrics that cry out "don't notice us, we're not worthy" (while desperately wanting to be noticed, but that's another story).

The band was a little stiff during the first few songs ("Animal," "Hail Hail," "Brain of J," "In Hiding," "Jeremy" ), but this was due less to the layoff than the tentative playing of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron (sitting in for Jack Irons). When they launched into a manic "Do the Evolution," however, Cameron loosened up. By the end of the night, he had proved himself to be the best drummer Pearl Jam has ever used -- thundering when called for ("MPC," "Black"), framing the beat with a deep-in-the-pocket swing on "Present Tense" and "Wishlist."

Vedder, who did not mumble hello or thank you for the first five songs, seemed to loosen up around the same time as Cameron. Once he opened his mouth, you couldn't shut him up -- he was funny (asking the college town what they majored in, then joking "don't lie, I know you're all here to learn how to fuck"), cryptic ("did you know that you are famous ... people from Billings are famous"), goofy (asking the crowd that had assembled on the hills outside the stadium to "get up and move if you can hear us") and generous (for the encore, he brought up Wayne, a fan who proposed to his girlfriend from the stage before the band played "Better Man"). On the whole he seemed more comfortable on stage than ever before.

While Vedder never sang anything with less than absolute conviction, his on-stage disposition and the band's song selection played down their earlier whiny reputation. Songs such as the anthemic "Alive" and "Even Flow" have become almost uplifting, a word one would not have previously associated with this group.

Taken along with Yield, this show points to a more mature Pearl Jam, still able to rock with a passion and authority -- Mike McCready's careening solos were especially impressive -- but less interested in a public airing of their every emotional hiccup. It might not sell in the same massive numbers as their earlier work, but it is a sound choice for this now-savvy band.

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