By Mark Guarino
Six songs into the first night of a two-night stand, Eddie Vedder set a goal of raising the roof of the United Center. The roof stayed put, but that was probably a lofty goal anyway. The streamlined rock that Pearl Jam performed Tuesday was not meant for moving buildings. Now in their 16th year, the multimillion-selling Seattle band is not converting fans, it got them at the start and they never left the flock. Which means, for a live show this late in the game, rolling through the back catalog is pie in the sky enough.
Pearl Jam just released a self-titled album that encapsulates global anger at a personal level. If Neil Young sees the nation “living with war,” Pearl Jam sees that battle, not in the halls of Congress, but in the living rooms of families broken apart by overseas violence. It says something that just two weeks after that album’s release, a majority of the crowd knew every word to new songs like “World Wide Suicide,” “Life Wasted,” “Comatose” and “Severed Hand,” songs that are not only the band’s best in years, it balances compassion and outrage in a tight fist.
U2, a certifiable roof-raising band, touches the sky through lengthy pronouncements and sweeping visuals. Pearl Jam let the songs make their point through steely guitar riffs and howling vocals. Unlike previous tours, no words were needed once the last note of every song was played.
Vedder’s banter did not include polemics. Instead, the Evanston native cheered the latter day championship Bulls and insisted he was a Chicago guy at heart.
The most drastic statements came from Mike McCready who stomped in circles, fell into splits, coaxed the crowd and — oh, yeah — he played guitar, too. When he didn’t drag the band into directionless jams (too often), McCready was a force to be reckoned with. He drove most of these songs, from the stuttering riff of “Corduroy” to solos that sometimes balanced one long, tense note before crashing down the frets.
Aside from a few lasers and a mirror ball, the design was bare. Which meant the show hinged entirely on songs, which by now, can not only fill evenings clocking at two hours and 30 minutes but with wildly different setlists each night.
Taking such stock in their history, this was not a show for the unconverted. Pearl Jam played arena rock, but it wasn’t of The Who variety, even through the 28th song was “Baba O’Riley.” Instead, this was music to pump fists to, sing along with, but didn’t follow reliable formulas. Many of the songs required fans to listen closely since they followed different meters, stopped and then turned down different paths and more often than not used minor keys.
It is to their credit that Pearl Jam transformed this strange concoction into unifying rock that kept the audience on their feet for almost three hours. If arena rock is meant as pure power, here was music that made you think, too.