Toward the end of Pearl Jam's huge 20th-anniversary celebration on September 4th, Eddie Vedder returned to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and began playing a sweet little tune he'd written just hours before. "Couldn’t have told me back then that it would someday be allowed to be so in love with life, as deeply as we are now," he sang, his voice full of genuine gratitude. "Never thought we would, never thought we could/So glad we made it/I’m so glad we made it/I’m so glad we made it to when it all got good."
Those words summed up the feel-good vibe at PJ20, a two-day lovefest that celebrated everything Pearl Jam has accomplished over the past two decades. Tens of thousands of devotees descended on East Troy, Wisconsin's famed Alpine Valley Music Theatre to spend their Labor Day weekend with the band. They came from all over the world, waving the flags of Japan, Mexico, Peru, Italy and other far-flung nations over their heads in the enormous outdoor amphitheater. They queued up all day to get a chance to see band artifacts housed in an on-site Pearl Jam museum, and they cheered their lungs out when their heroes took the stage.
Pearl Jam rewarded the faithful with two days and nights of top-notch guitar rock. The lineups for Saturday and Sunday were the same: Hand-picked openers including Glen Hansard, Joseph Arthur, Liam Finn, John Doe and thenewno2 played on two small side stages in the afternoon, followed by hard-charging performances from Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age and the Strokes on the main stage – all leading up to a killer three-hour Pearl Jam set each evening.
Each night also featured a previously unannounced Temple of the Dog mini-set in the middle of Pearl Jam's show. Twitter rumors beforehand had indicated that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell might join the band to reunite their beloved pre-Pearl Jam project – and Cornell got possibly the loudest crowd reactions of the weekend each time he swaggered on stage and ripped through dusty 1991 classics like "Hunger Strike," "Say Hello 2 Heaven," "Call Me a Dog" and "Reach Down." But Pearl Jam gave the audience two very distinct experiences each night, completely switching up the set lists in their usual fashion.
After a long day of rain on Saturday, Pearl Jam opened their set with "Release," as super-pumped fans sang along to each and every word. After that they spent most of the night digging into rarely played deep cuts like 1998's "Push Me, Pull Me" and 2000's "In the Moonlight." Anyone who came to Alpine Valley on Saturday hoping to hear the big hits probably picked the wrong night. But the set list was surely a treat for the true believers who know every B-side and outtake by heart – and that description seemed to apply to most of the people in attendance. That said, the crowd absolutely lost it when they heard the opening lick of 1994 smash "Better Man," calling out the entire first verse and chorus while Vedder looked out in wide-eyed wonder over the teeming lawn. "[People said] this ain't gonna happen," he said of the band's 20-year milestone a bit later. "That it's a dream, against the odds. I'm glad we didn't listen. "
Special guests abounded on Saturday – the Strokes' Julian Casablancas wailing on "Not for You," Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme livening up "In the Moonlight," thenewno2's Dhani Harrison rocking out on "State of Love and Trust" and more. The biggest cameo of all, of course, came from Cornell. After Temple of the Dog's Saturday set, whose highlights included a cover of Mother Love Bone's "Stardog Champion" and a monumental Vedder-Cornell duet on "Hunger Strike" (watch video below), Pearl Jam returned for a cover-filled encore including the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" and a rowdy spin through the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" with help from members of Mudhoney. "Let's do this again tomorrow!" Vedder said to close out the night.
Pearl Jam's members seemed to be everywhere on Sunday afternoon, when sunnier weather meant big audiences for the sidestage openers. PJ bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready all came out to back Joseph Arthur on tunes including a strong new Ament-penned rocker called "When the Fire Burns" and Arthur's signature "In the Sun." A grinning Vedder popped up to play drums with Liam Finn, dashed off stage, then reappeared later to duet with Glen Hansard on "Falling Slowly," drawing packed crowds.
Around 6 p.m. on Sunday, as on Saturday, the masses moved in a wave toward the mainstage to see Mudhoney and then Queens of the Stone Age kick up heavy rackets. The two bands felt like contemporaries and heirs, respectively, of Pearl Jam's early raging attack. The Strokes' tight hooks might seem to have less to do with Pearl Jam, but there's definitely a bond between the two bands. Vedder came out both nights to scream himself nearly hoarse on the Strokes' "Juiceboxxx." Casablancas, who seemed particularly listless and blasé on Sunday night, perked right up when Vedder arrived. "This is great," he said, "'cause he sings it so much better than I do." He wasn't lying.
At around 9:15 on Sunday night, Pearl Jam made their entrance for the second time. Immediately, it was clear that the band was firing on all cylinders. Vedder – easily one of rock's two or three most dynamic frontmen – was a ball of manic energy from the opening notes of "Wash" onward, swaying, writhing and jumping for pure joy as the crowd pumped their fists en masse. "We feel like we could play just about anything," he said a few songs in, "and you fuckers would know it." Fans cheered as they recognized the next unexpected selection, 1998's "Pilate."
But that comment turned out to be a fake-out of sorts. Midway through the set, right after a campfire-style singalong on 2002's "Love Boat Captain" and a raving version of 1996 B side "Habit" assisted by Liam Finn, Pearl Jam's set list suddenly transformed into a total hit parade. In short order, they tore through blazing versions of old favorites like 1991's "Even Flow" (featuring an awe-inspiring extended McCready solo, 1993's "Daughter" (with Ament on an upright bass) and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" (a request from guest Dhani Harrison). "It's like a fine wine," Vedder said after "Even Flow." "It gets better and stronger and purer and more powerful with age."
The singer later gave an impassioned speech about his years advocating for the wrongly imprisoned West Memphis Three, who were finally freed last month. "Thanks for trusting us," Vedder said. "And if you didn't trust us on that, fuck you. You should have known better." With that, he invited John Doe on stage for a rowdy cover of X's "The New World." Then it was back to the hits, with a soulful "Black" and an incandescent "Jeremy" closing out Sunday's main set – an incredible one-two punch.
"This doesn't make us feel older at all," Vedder said when he returned for the first encore. "It's given us some sense of rebirth. It feels like a new beginning." After he finished the aforementioned new song, the rest of the band joined him for heartfelt semi-acoustic versions of 2009's "Just Breathe" and 1994's "Nothingman." After a dark, harmonica-laced run through 1996's "Smile" featuring a ripping guest turn by Glen Hansard and a rowdy rendition of 1994's "Spin the Black Circle" during which McCready ran literal laps around his bandmates, it was time for the weekend's second Temple of the Dog reunion, featuring another massive "Hunger Strike" duet, a mostly acoustic "All Night Thing" and a heavy bayou-funk spin through "Reach Down." "Keeping a band together for 20 years," Cornell noted dryly over the crowd's wild cheers, "is not that easy to do."
Cornell departed, only to be replaced on stage by Mudhoney's Mark Arm and Steve Turner. "This is a song we used to play at the end of the night when the crowd numbered in the tens," said Vedder, introducing a raucous cover of Dead Boys' 1977 nugget "Sonic Reducer." The stage emptied afterward, but the night wasn't over just yet – not before Pearl Jam came back for a third and final encore. The crowd-thrilling set list: 1991's "Alive," Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," and the 1992 B-side "Yellow Ledbetter." It was well after midnight when they finished. It's hard to imagine that anyone left Alpine Valley feeling unsatisfied.
Additional reporting by Dan Hyman.