Briefly: Pearl Jam, live at the Garden, 5-17-10

More from Derek Kouyoumjian 

"There's a great arena rock show going on out here," said Eddie Vedder to the masses during Pearl Jam's second and final encore Monday night at the TD Garden. He then turned around.  "But there's a great club show going on back here." He was addressing the fans seated in the seats behind him - sure, they'd been looking at the band's backs all night, but they were closer to the stage than pretty much anyone else. The Jammers then played the majority of "Soldier of Love," the B-side to "Last Kiss," facing that part of the room. 

What was notable about that exchange to me was that my strongest memories of Pearl Jam involve their early 90s days when, having discovered instant success that they were less than enamored with, the band - or Vedder, at least - made it clear that they would probably prefer a career of playing club shows to filling arenas. They rejected MTV back when MTV's support was still mandatory for a band with platinum aspirations. They publicly feuded with Ticketmaster on political grounds, leading them to play infrequently for a few years in the mid-90s. And they included more and more abrasive tracks and leftfield experiments on each subsequent album. It was all the kind  of stuff that would suggest to amateur armchair psychoanalysts that they were trying to get rid of at least a segment of their fans - separate the casual listeners from the serious diehards, as it were. And on a micro-level, it worked, sort of: small sample size and all, but a lot of the people I talk to jumped off the PJ-wagon somewhere between Vitalogy and No Code. But in aggregate, they're still popular enough to book arenas due to demand (and not as a hubris-filled refusal to acknowledge their own decline in popularity). 

And the kids who moved on from them in the early years are missing out: 1997's Yield is pretty outstanding, and although Binaural and Riot Act were kind of duds, 2006's self-titled release and last year's Backspacer are both solid, workmanlike efforts. They're not yet in late-career cruise-control mode (hi, U2!) or descending into self-parody (I see you there, R.E.M.!). They are a rarity in rock: rather than softening with age, they've gotten angrier and edgier and in doing so have maintained their relevance and dignity, all without seeming to try too hard or resorting to trend-hopping. They've simply gotten better at doing what they do, which includes playing places like the Garden to crowds of thousands of New England Doodz, where they certainly seemed comfortable on Monday night. Vedder estimated it was their 27th show in Massachusetts - Boston, by all accounts, holds a special place in the band's heart (it was here in 1994 they learned of Kurt Cobain's death).

The band picked a good setlist for the occasion, for sure, as hits ("Not For You," "Hail Hail," "The Fixer," "Animal," "Given to Fly") and deep cuts ("Pilate," "Red Mosquito," "State of Love and Trust," "Push Me Pull Me") co-mingled seamlessly. They still have a way with dramatic catharses that can fill a big space like the Garden - they did a pretty amazing version of (Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard's first band) Mother Love Bone's "Crown of Thorns" - but mostly they were in musical attack mode. They ripped through versions of some of their more inescapable songs, like "Rearviewmirror," "Alive," and "Evenflow," but whereas in the hands of a lesser band such uptempo renditions could sound perfunctory, here they sounded somewhat fresh, as though the band were trying to adapt their older material to these angrier times (and re-assert their punk rock bona fides at the same time). Even "Better Man," a song I consider to represent the band at their soccer-mommiest, gives them a chance to pay tribute to the English Beat, as Vedder sang a chorus of "Save it For Later." And the two covers they played were perfect - The Who's "Reign O'er Me" and Neil Young's "Rocking in the Free World" both sounded absolutely massive. I'm less sure how well Vedder's remembrance of the late Howard Zinn went over with this crowd, though; again, small sample size, but the people I was near seemed to be politely tolerating it more than anything. I'm pretty sure I heard some boos, too, when Vedder name-checked Sean Penn while trying to salute his charity work in Haiti, though most did applaud when the topic shifted to the work of local organization Partners in Health.

My biggest complaint, weirdly, was the opener. Don't get me wrong, Band of Horses are a totally competent, acceptable band. They can write some pretty nice hooks, and "The Great Salt Lake," "No One's Gonna Love You," and "The Funeral" are all pretty good. Their new songs sounded inoffensive and unobtrusive. Which was precisely the problem; their music wasn't bad, it was just easily ignored. Maybe my impression would change if I was watching them at the Paradise instead of the Garden, but I was unmoved. It could also have something to do with the fact that I knew past Pearl Jam openers have included awesome bands like Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney, the latter of whom Vedder paid a (possibly impromptu) tribute to by inserting a few bars of the chorus of "Modern Girl" from their planet-destroying final album The Woods. Hey Eddie, here's an idea: clearly you love Sleater-Kinney, so why don't you and your popular rock and roll band record a cover of one of their songs, release it as a single, and give their back catalog some exposure (and let them in on some of those sweet royalty checks)? You guys could totally turn "Good Things" or "Entertain" into a hit!  
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