To see Eddie Vedder dance — not thrash against his music like a frustrated beast, but rather wriggle his hips and pump his arms like a careless rock star — was to see Pearl Jam finally escape the cocoon. And with the sobering boundaries of their former life finally discarded, Pearl Jam were free to unfurl their wings and rock with a newfound, desperately urgent sense of freedom.
Playing back-to-back sold-out shows at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theater this weekend, Seattle’s last great rock band was not trying to right the wrongs or punish the offenders — it was trying only to make the entire crowd open its arms toward the sky during that precise moment in “Wishlist.” And Pearl Jam succeeded — not only in conducting a spontaneous moment of rock adulation, but also in bringing the music back to its vigorous roots.
Eddie Vedder became a rock star to believe in Friday night when he led more than 30,000 people in a gut-wrenching rendition of “Alive.” The hope-filled ying to Nirvana’s desperate, jaded yang of the same era, “Alive” has taken on a meaning far greater since the demise of Cobain in particular and the early ’90s Seattle sound in general.
Marking not only the climax of an era, but also of Friday night’s show, “Alive” was followed by one last significant bang when Vedder returned to the stage for a Wisconsin anecdote and a version of the not-so-rare B-side, “Yellow Ledbetter.” That final encore was dedicated to the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in a plane crash shortly after playing Alpine Valley eight years ago. Mike McCready’s “Machine Gun” Hendrix tag seemed all the more appropriate considering the circumstances.
Like Friday, Saturday’s set was built on a bedrock of punk and unadulterated rock that seldom allowed the pumped crowd to catch its breath. Obvious road favorites like “Brain of J,” “MFC” and “Evolution” from the band’s February release, Yield, were buffered by rollicking sing-a-longs like “Even Flow,” “Betterman” and “Hail, Hail.”
Trading gold lamé jackets for faded shades of brown, and acrobatic stage antics for more subdued microphone posturing, Vedder was no less a rock star than Mick Jagger this weekend. He roared into the night, jammed on the guitar, danced across the stage and conversed with the crowd — all with a new level of ease and affection.
For a frontman who was known to blast through entire nights of music mumbling only a few song titles and a final “thank you,” Vedder was downright talkative onstage. Throughout the weekend, the Evanston, Ill.-born singer teased the Wisconsin crowd with a round of good-natured state rivalry that is to be expected from a man who would affix a red Bulls sticker to an otherwise pristine black guitar. In a classic live moment during “Habit,” Vedder testified to never wearing “a piece of orange Styrofoam cheese on hishead,” but later appeased the crowd with a soliloquy regarding the comfort and sex appeal of the Packers’ signature cheese hat.
As all the pieces fell into place for Pearl Jam this weekend, the band gave simple, knowing nods to its die-hard fans with a handful of rare live tunes that included the Ten opener, “Once;” the Yield B-side, “Leatherman;” and the supple “Yesterdays” — which the band had played just once on this tour. Finally, it seemed only fitting that Pearl Jam would close the weekend with a song inspired by Frogs leader and Wisconsin native, Dennis Flemion.
Don’t it make you smile?