For the last 17 years, the going story on Pearl Jam was that they were a band that prided themselves on a willful disregard for expectations. The bullet-points are so frequently recited they can almost be announced in unison: their repudiation of the music video, their now-legendary tussle with Ticketmaster, their insistence on releasing their records on vinyl a week before they came out on CD. Lately, the group shucked the whole major label system, releasing their latest album, Backspacer, on their own, with exclusive distribution in Target and several small independent outlets. Commercial fallout be damned, Pearl Jam built their reputation on a stubborn insistence to follow their own muse.
All of which only served to make their crowd-pleasing festival-closing set Sunday at Austin City Limits that much more astonishing. Abandoning any impulse to confound or to frustrate, the group instead delivered a jaw-dropping, white-hot two-hour cavalcade of hits, one that served to aggressively reassert their relevance while casting a clean light on their past. It was — by any measure — the best show of the weekend. “We’ve been here three days,” Eddie Vedder said early in the evening, “and in those three days we’ve received many, many gifts. So we’re going to do our best to return the favor.” (Check out video from the band’s set, plus footage of the Dead Weather, above.)
Vedder laced a series of steely guitar runs through opener “Why Go?” and slashed a jagged path up the center of “Corduroy.” What was most breathtaking about the set was its brute, blunt force, and the ferocity with which the band tore into the songs. “Hail, Hail” and “Even Flow” — on which Mike McCready heaved his guitar behind his head and peeled off an endless, blistering solo — operated at almost twice their usual speed, Vedder hurling his body across the stage, punctuating verses with punches and leaps. If Vedder is the group’s outspoken firebrand, McCready is their (not so) secret weapon. His playing on Sunday was adroit without being flashy, setting the punkier numbers ablaze with nimble, looping solos.
The group’s reliance on classic material afforded an opportunity to see how much they’ve grown. Taken on its own “The Fixer,” the sterling new single from Backspacer, is a charmer, Vedder wandering through the world and setting aright all of the things that seem askew (“When something’s cold/let me put a little fire on it”). But coming as it did between a scorching “State of Love and Trust” and a volcanic, borderline-hardcore take on “Go,” the song’s steely optimism felt that much more earned.
For a band with a new record to flog — and a good one, at that — the band went light on recent songs, the best of which, the taut, hammering “Got Some” found Vedder frantically barking out lyrics. Despite their affinity for the guitar solo, Pearl Jam’s best songs operate at warp speed, and display a cannier knack for the nuances of melody than many of their supposed disciples. On Sunday it was their roots in punk rock that felt the most pronounced, with songs like “Do the Evolution” little more than grizzled hunks of sound.
Vedder remained chatty and good-natured. He tossed the refrain of former opening act Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl” at the end of “Not for You” (a song that sounded even nastier and more confrontational now then when it was released) and shared a rambling anecdote about how he and Ben Harper had been up until 8:30 that morning, during which they had figured out the solution to the world’s problems (“We wrote it down. The trouble is, it’s just scribble — you can’t read it”). Harper later joined the group on stage, lacing up “Red Mosquito” with snarling lap steel.
The set was so inspired that it was easy to forgive the band for ending on a note of shameless nostalgia. First, they were joined by Perry Farrell — who Vedder announced as “a guy who invented everything we’re doing up here, and probably most of what you’re doing out there” — for a thundering take on Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song.” And, like they’ve done for years, the show ended with a ragged run through Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” It was a safe bet, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying — which, of course, is part of the perfect paradox of Pearl Jam: the only band in the business that confounds expectations by fulfilling them.
“Not For You”
“Modern Girl” (Sleater-Kinney Cover, Partial)
“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”
“Given to Fly”
“World Wide Suicide”
“State of Love & Trust”
“Red Mosquito” (w/ Ben Harper)
“Do the Evolution”
“The Real Me” (The Who Cover)
“Mountain Song” (Jane’s Addiction cover w/ Perry Farrel)
“Rockin’ in the Free World”
More Austin City Limits:
• Dave Matthews Band Mix Whiskey With Jams
• Levon Helm, Zac Brown Band, Deer Tick and More Battle the Mud at Austin City Limits Day Two
• Kings of Leon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs Wrap Austin City Limits Day One
• Them Crooked Vultures Jolt Austin City Limits, Plus Phoenix, Avett Brothers Rock Day One
Look back at the best of Rolling Stone’s summer festival coverage