“We’re playing most of our ocean songs tonight,” Eddie Vedder told the enthusiastic crowd at the sold-out Gibson Amphitheater Wednesday night, “because we’re so close to the shore.” And while the tsunamis predicted for the actual shore this week did not appear, the first night of the Seattle quintet’s four-show run hit with a thunderous, crashing power.
From the first notes of “Why Go,” the band played with a furious energy. It’s a carry-over from “Backspacer,” their new album released on their own Monkeywrench label through a deal with the retail giant Target, which finds Pearl Jam leaning in a more energetic, punky direction.
It’s a quick (37-minute), down and dirty collection that feels tossed off in the very best way. And they’ve jettisoned the furrowed-brow anguish that often turned their albums and concerts into therapy sessions. In its place is an ease and joy. Without the need to prove its grave credibility, Pearl Jam has relaxed and allowed itself to become a great second-generation classic rock band. The album is the band’s first to top the chart in over a decade, leading Vedder to joke that although the band was unfazed, now that they’re all parents, it’s nice to be able to tell their kids “your dad’s number one.”
The rest of the performance also showed a welcome lack of flash and posturing. With no video screens or computerized visuals, there was little that wouldn’t have been out of place in a mid-’70s concert. The band performed on a nearly bare stage with the only decoration a backdrop showing that most romanticized obsolete technology, a manual typewriter keyboard with the letters PEARL JAM on the home row.
The music looked back as well. Guitarist Mike McCready might play his solo on “Tremor Christ” with his guitar behind his head, but the band mostly dug in, bringing a tough, flinty edge to everything they performed. Even on the slower numbers, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament play crisply creased rhythms, and guitarists McCready and Stone Gossard add angular, metallic riffs. (Opener Ben Harper, who joined the band for “Red Mosquito,” reaches for a similar classic mix, with a greater emphasis on the blues. His new band, the Relentless 7, does a fine job backing him.)
Older material lost its old grunge crust: “Even Flow” was given a crisp, revved-up reading, and “State of Love and Trust” exhibited an epic sweep. And Vedder has grown into a wonderful singer, mixing a touch of the middle-eastern melodies adopted by Led Zeppelin with a post-punk emotionalism, with a delicacy on the encores “Just Breathe” and “The End,” performed with a string quartet.
He’s also a warm and generous frontman, grabbing cell phones to take pictures of fans from the stage, tossing out picks and tambourines, and dragging a teenage fan to the stage to join in on “Love and Trust.” It’s all part of a successful attempt to forge an old-fashioned relationship with the audience, which is rewarded by the band’s setlists — deftly mixing favorites, new songs and obscurities, and ending the show covering Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World,” with the house lights up for a final communal celebration.