Twenty years of Pearl Jam
For Pearl Jam, it’s been a great 20 years, writes Andrew Fenton
DURING the encores at Pearl Jam’s last major concert in front of 40,000 fans at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, frontman Eddie Vedder turned to the band to thank them for ‘‘taking a chance on a young kid’’ and inviting him join the group more than 20 years ago.
The emotional words of gratitude, to guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and bassist Jeff Ament in Vedder’s hometown, were heartfelt.
‘‘Yeah how about that,’’ says Gossard, sounding chuffed.
‘‘We were pretty smart. He’s being too humble there – I think we’re lucky we got a chance to take a chance on him, I’ll tell you that.’’
It was just one highlight in a truly memorable night. Seven songs into their set, thousands of fans had to be evacuated from the field into the stands because of an electrical storm and a torrential downpour – a suitably ironic way to debut songs from new album Lightning Bolt.
After a two hour delay the band finally retook the stage around midnight – an hour after the noise curfew – and played the remainder of a blistering 32 song set that culminated in a 2am rendition of encore staple, Rockin’ in the Free World.
‘‘There were probably some parents with kids asleep in that neighbourhood who were not psyched about it,’’ Gossard says. ‘‘But it ended up being a great show and for Ed, it’s his home town and a place he has a lot of feelings for.’’
Reports back suggest Pearl Jam are match fit for their Australian tour as Big Day Out headliners (they’ll play a full two-hour concert set).
‘‘I don’t know if we were ready (to headline a festival) 10 years ago, but right now the band is playing better than ever before and we’re excited to come down and tear it up,’’ Gossard says.
Lightning Bolt, the band’s tenth album, is the follow up to 2009’s well received Backspacer – their first US chart topper since 1996.
Recording began early last year but the band wasn’t entirely happy with the results from those sessions.
The album was finished off at LA’s Henson Recording Studios earlier this year.
In the interim: ‘‘Ed did a solo record and tour, I made a Brad record, there were some kids born, there was some time off,’’ he says.
‘‘It was like: ‘We’ve made nine records, we can take a little bit more time’.’’
While Gossard was the main songwriter in the early days, now all of the members show up with a handful of tracks for longtime producer Brendan O’Brien to either work his magic on or diplomatically set aside.
McCready ‘‘who hasn’t necessarily written a lot of songs for the band’’ stepped up his game, penning the first two singles Mind Your Manners, which bristles with raw punkish energy, and the emotive and melancholy Sirens – ‘‘two of the best Pearl Jam songs I think we’ve ever written’’.
Stylistically, those two cuts cover more ground than some bands manage in entire careers.
‘‘That’s what’s fun about being in this band that it’s all OK,’’ Gossard says, adding he has always aspired to the diversity of the Led Zeppelin era.
‘‘That’s when a lot more experimentation was going on in regards to ballads and country songs, and songs influenced by eastern rhythms,’’ he says.
‘‘When we came out a lot of that stuff was maybe not as OK.’’ Even during their ’90s peak, Pearl Jam had more in common with classic rock bands, than with the cliches of grunge.
‘‘Grunge was just a concept somebody came up with after the music was already done, so yeah I think we were always a band that was influenced by hard rock, heavy-metal, punk and folk and those things are always popping up in our music,’’ he says.
In a perceptive review of Backspacer, AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s wrote that the band: ‘‘battled their success for so long, intent on whittling their audience down to the devout, that it often felt like a chore (to listen to some records) that’s no longer the case it sounds as if they enjoy being in a band, intoxicated by the noise they make’’. Gossard concedes that’s not far from the truth. ‘‘There’s some of that going on,’’ he says. ‘‘We’re more comfortable and confident that we were 15 years ago about who it is we are, and what we are doing some of it is just as a 40-something person you look back on your life and go, ‘Wow, I’m lucky to even be alive, I should just enjoy myself’.’’
And although ‘‘all that’s sacred comes from youth’’ Gossard can see the band playing into their 70s. ‘‘I don’t think that could ever become tiring,’’ he says. ‘‘I could see it evolve. I could see as 70-year-olds we probably wouldn’t be running around as much and we’d probably kick the tempo back a little bit I just think that sounds like a blast.’’
Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire, Blur, Snoop Lion and more play the Big Day Out, at Metricon Stadium, on Janaury 19; Lightning Bolt is out tomorrow.
Pearl Jam . . . Gold Coast-bound for Big Day Out