Concert Review: Portland Welcomes Back Pearl Jam

It’s not very hard to understand Pearl Jam’s passionate fan base.

To say they are different is an understatement. Pearl Jam never really does anything like most other bands. They’ve fought with Ticketmaster and dumped their record label, they tour sporadically, sell tickets all at the same price ($65 in Portland), completely mix up the setlist every night of the tour and play three hours of songs featuring less singles and more deep album cuts.

Pearl Jam last played in Oregon seven years ago and that was a benefit concert at a much smaller venue and without a marathon run of songs. It’s been more than a decade since a tour stopped in the state. It should be no surprise then that on Friday the pioneers of grunge rock returned and gave an adoring, sold out audience at the Moda Center in Portland a rousing 33-song set that had a little bit of everything.

The band opened with “Pendulum” from their latest album Lightning Bolt and Vedder’s deep bass voice cut through the audience like a melodious foghorn. “Low Light” and “Sometimes” followed before the band finally opened up the guitar chords with favorite “Corduroy.” Two new tracks were next with “Lightning Bolt” and the very punk rock “Mind Your Manners” which Pearl Jam played just like it should be – nearly incomprehensible but at the same time completely understandable.

Six songs from the new album made the setlist. Of course the band nailed it with the great “Sirens.” Vedder’s voice was never better and he even outplayed himself from the album version. “Yellow Moon” and “Infallable” also got stage time. Pearl Jam released Lightning Bolt in October. The album is well-crafted and Friday’s show could have benefitted from a few more cuts from Lightning Bolt like “Future Days” and “Getaway” instead of covers.

Regardless, Pearl Jam embraced a broad range of songs from the punk rock “Lukin” to the reflective “The End” and just plain old rock and roll of “Animal.” The band played heavy on “Deep,” soft with “Yellow Moon” emotional on “Wasted Reprise” and just flat out awesome getting serenaded by the audience on “Better Man” and “Alive.”

“Last Exit” and “Rearviewmirror” which closed the first set really suffered from an abundance of bass. Jeff Amant’s bass guitar combined with Matt Cameron’s drumming and Vedder’s already lower-range overpowered any melody to the songs making them difficult to follow and completely swallowing the vocals.

The second set, which more appropriately felt like a second act, really slowed the tempo and cozied up the evening with the band sitting inside a makeshift hut using what looked like a monsterous bird’s nest as a roof. Add a fireplace and some stars and the audience simply needed to stretch out and relax like an evening at the park.

The tedious “All Those Yesterdays” bottomed-out before Pearl Jam came back with the beautifully sung “Just Breathe” with Vedder on the acoustic guitar and then to a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother” giving Vedder some alone time with and guitarist Stone Gossard on the acoustic before a great lead-in by guitarist Mike McCready.

Just as the audience seem to tire of the campfire routine, Pearl Jam finally cranked things back up with “State of Love and Trust” first featured on the soundtrack to the 1992 movie “Singles.” “Why Go” with a sweet bass line and the up-tempo “Porch” closed out the second act with a great extended jam to finish the song. The night’s set featured three covers including the evening-closer “Rockin’ in the Free World” when REM guitarist Peter Buck and the band Sleater-Kinney jumped on stage and played along.

Vedder may be the apple to most of the ladies eyes, but he has some serious musicians backing him up in guitarist McCready and bassist Amant. Why McCready is not readily mentioned among the elite of his craft is a disservice to the man’s talent. He cranked out solos all evening and especially shined on “Corduroy,” “Porch,” and “Even Flow” when he played flawlessly with the guitar behind his back. And McCready doesn’t simply play scales up and down the fret board really fast he puts some serious attention to detail in each and every one.

Amant simmers on bass and sometimes plays as though he belongs in a metal band. He ripped on “Porch” and “Spin the Black Circle” and is a perfect counterpart to McCready’s guitar. Watching Amant bounce around the stage in his own slam-pit gave an inclination of where his heart for music lies.

Of course, no Pearl Jam concert is complete without Vedder hyperbolizing on his liberal politics. Off the cuff speaker Vedder is not, as he often slurred his words and mumbled and fumbled through impromptu speeches sounding more like Ozzy Osbourne than the great singer he is.

At the beginning of the concert he pointed out a man stage-left in a wheel chair who was a guest of honor, of sorts. Near the end of the concert, Vedder said the man, who had since left the show, moved to Oregon for the Death with Dignity Act. It cast a bit of a pall on the evening as Vedder claimed the man was ready to die in September. That turned into a tirade against Dick Cheney and the lies by the Bush administration about the war in Iraq, where, it was assumed, Vedder’s guest received his paralyzing injuries.

Yet, no mention of the Obama Administration’s heavy use of the controversial drone attacks or the well-known lies about the Affordable Care Act with more and more reports of people, including those with cancer, losing their health plans. If fairness and equality are the tent poles to socialism, sure the band gets points for offering every seat at their show at one price, however, intellectual honesty demands Vedder recognize the misdeeds of those in power he aligns himself with.

Pearl Jam Portland (Moda Center) Setlist:

1. Pendulum
2. Low Light
3. Sometimes
4. Corduroy
5. Lightning Bolt
6. Mind Your Manners
7. Animal
8. Deep
9. Sirens
10. Even Flow
11. You Are
12. Given to Fly
13. Infallible
14. After Hours (The Velvet Underground cover)
15. Spin the Black Circle
16. Rats
17. Lukin
18. Last Exit
19. Rearviewmirror
20. The End
21. Yellow Moon
22. All Those Yesterdays
23. Just Breathe
24. Mother (Pink Floyd cover)
25. State of Love and Trust
26. Why Go
27. Porch
28. Better Man
29. Wasted Reprise
30. Life Wasted
31. Black
32. Alive
33. Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young cover)