Pearl Jam: proper rock in Detroit city

“It’s evolution baby,” Vedder proclaimed after a cheeky joke that left the audience roaring for more. It was a dick joke, and it was appropriate. Because, while the band has evolved, they’ve remained relevant, they’ve remained rock and roll. And it’s that ever-present air of charisma that keeps them packing arenas.

It’s that guitar-shattering, glass-breaking, wine-chugging bravado that keeps fans from their mobile devices, senses stacked towards the stage. But, we’ll get to all of that later.

Packed house, the crowd came from all walks of life and persuasion, filling the seats with their delicately draped flannel and cups full of draught beer. Anticipation, the air was thick with it.

No opening act, as the stage sat adequately just left of center, allowing a view from each angle of the arena. Used to the stable cheers of a crowd, Joe Louis was prime for the undertaking. And, as the house lights went dim, the roars took hold and the band strolled onto the stage.

A stage reminiscent of an evening garden party on your aunts’ back patio, if your aunt were Kathleen Hanna and it was held in Roswell, New Mexico in the 60s. The audience was probed with good intention and egged on by their next of kin. Large glass globes hung down from a dense cluster of barbwire and seemed to have captured Technicolor lighting bugs as their hues waned from green to red.

The first three songs were performed as a sprint. Just as soon as the audience was settling into them, they were finished. This was a warm-up, feeling out the crowd. While we always seem to think we know the artists on a first name basis, they certainly don’t know us; as proper etiquette, we ought to give them a bit of time to make acquaintance. Where were our manners?

In that sprint, they’d managed to perform, “Oceans,” a song that die-hard fans hold dear as a needle in their vast haystack of repertoire. Afterwards, the band transitioned into a smooth rendition of, “Nothingman,” my absolute favorite. I was ill-prepared at best and, as I tried to grasp onto it like an old pair of my favorite worn boots in the trash bin, they began, “Don’t Go.”

This set the tone for what will be heralded as the night Pearl Jam tossed boundaries to the wind and gave their deserving crowd the best damn show Joe Louis has seen in recent months.

The band, at it for 23 years and counting, has only been in Detroit a dozen times. This was their first performance at Joe Louis Arena, and Vedder took the time to discuss the local Hockey Club, area performers such as Jack White, and to also pay homage to White’s recently departed keyboardist Isaiah ‘Ikey’ Owens with, “Light Years.” There was also mention of Dennis Rodman, whom he’s quite proud of for skipping out on the show and, “taking care of himself.”

The banter would continue throughout the set between evocative performances of old favorites like, “I’m Going Hungry,” “Black,” and, “Black, Red, Yellow,” and renditions of newer material in the form of, “Mind Your Manners,” and, “Lightning Bolt.” A solo-acoustic cover of John Lennon’s, “Imagine,” was also displayed in earnest.

When asked to sing a fan favorite, “Got Some,” Vedder remarked, “we just don’t remember it, it’s a song about smoking pot…we can’t remember it, imagine that.” “That’s a Matt Cameron song, right there.”

The audience was quite forgiving and stood to applaud Cameron. There were multiple ovations that night. Hell, the crowd never sat down. Lead guitarist, Matt McCready could be caught taking Polaroid snapshots from the stage in between bouts of manic shredding.

They’re a damn pleasant group of men and Vedder’s steady warble fit graciously atop the tight and energetic instrumentation. He strung the songs along and went from soft-spoken to raucous as he drank wine from the bottle and spit and poured it out onto a thirsty crowd. He was the ringleader, a maestro, and as he smashed a delicate glass bulb that hung above him with his white axe, the band kept on without flinching, even when that axe swung close to their appendages. He’d later smash the whole guitar, just to have it replaced promptly by crew members.

Vedder’s wranglers had their hands full that evening. Walking briskly, trying to follow his jaunts through the audience, up stairs, and through gangways. Ever-lining the stage in case he decided to leap into the crowd. It was humbling to see this display of affection for the fans. Humbling, to realize that I loved the band even more now that I’m grown than I did when I was 13 and searching for meaning in every tape cassette that landed in my grubby palm.

Even the delicate, “Man Of The Hour,” loosely dedicated to Chris Chelios that night, was served up with complete debauchery that only a wine-addled Vedder could supply as he warned a fan close-by, “it’s a public service announcement, don’t fuck with Chelios.” He then continued to sing it with complete clarity; flawless …and the crowd became silent.

Two encores, which included a spirited cover of the MC5s, “Kick Out The Jams,” and The Who’s, “Baba O’Riley,” were performed with the house lights and energy on high. They brought that arena to its knees.

Eternal youth, a romantic notion; to stay young, vibrant, relevant, to be able to command an audience with your wit and exuberance. Could things possibly get any better than they were as a nubile twenty-something? Pearl Jam proves, they do. And, after an evening with these ever-dynamic sub-pop prodigies, I wandered out into the crisp October air, happy.

Happy that I’m a half-sober grown-up able to attend a show like this and appreciate every ounce of it. Then, go directly to the nearest dive for some booze-addled, supple conversation with fellow barfly’s. I’m full grown, by proxy, and they’re nostalgia. But, moreover, they’re nuanced…staying significant enough to keep fans satiated, yet, still lustfull.

Catch them if you can at The Bridge School Benefit Concert in Mountain View, CA.

Charity, it’s groovy. These are Pearl Jam backed causes to throw some dollars toward.

-Holly Jones, editor, OnTour Magazine

-Photo Credits: Katie Bogus