Live review: Pearl Jam at the Baltimore Arena
It seemed unlikely that threads of rock ‘n roll history as disparate as Fugazi and Ted Nugent could be tied together neatly in one show, but they were on Sunday night at the Baltimore Arena, at the first Charm City date in Pearl Jam’s 23-year history. The first thread came, not with tributes to Lou Reed, the art rock icon and leader of the Velvet Underground who passed away earlier in the day — those came later — but with a shout-out to Ian MacKaye (!), the frontman of Fugazi and Minor Threat who was in the audience and who, Vedder said from the stage, came to the Baltimore Arena in the late ’70s with Henry Rollins to see Ted Nugent (!!).
“[Nugent] destroyed the place,” Vedder relayed, before adding, “so the challenge has been laid down.”
By and large, it was a challenge Pearl Jam proved capable of meeting, and mostly because they were willing to embrace the Ted Nugent end of the gulf between Fugazi’s principled punk stance and Nugent’s rock god egotism (and thankfully not the latter-day conservative nutjob variety). And in the era of fewer arena rock bands, Pearl Jam seems to be one of the only bands willing to step up as the live show heir apparent to Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band — keenly aware that it has to break out the hits (“Black,” “Alive,” “Corduroy”) but capable of digging deep in its songbook to please the diehard fans (“Lukin,” “Present Tense”). Two key ingredients in this equation: They’re still an incredibly tight and energetic live act and that they can completely own a cover song (The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” in tribute to Reed). The latter is no small feat; plenty of bands do this terribly. The show worked as both a celebration of the history of rock ‘n’ roll (Vedder, for one, has never been shy about lending his name to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech here, or a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony there) and an acknowledgment of the group’s own place in it.
But, unlike Springsteen, there is not a sense that everybody is here to be saved, big-tent revival style, by rock music and the triumph of the human spirit. Mostly, a Pearl Jam show is about the muscle and dynamic qualities of Pearl Jam. The band drew out some of the tried-and-true workhorses to add extended group jams or guitar solo heroics. That’s that bit of rock god egotism, and when you see Mike McCready strutting around the stage as his fingers work the fret board during a solo, notice McCready and bassist Jeff Ament running in a circle together during “Spin the Black Circle,” or watch Vedder take swigs of red wine between verses, stomp around, or swing out over the crowd from a big light bulb above the stage, you realize they’re one of the last bands that can do any of these things convincingly. U2 and Springsteen are too uplifting. Arcade Fire is too grand and preachy. The Killers try too hard to be New Order. The Rolling Stones are too old. Kings of Leon don’t have enough songs. That leaves Pearl Jam as one of the last honest-to-goodness rock bands left standing.
Of course, many like to cite this rock posturing on the part of Pearl Jam as the reason we have Nickelback and Creed in the world. That’s not entirely unfair, but it ignores the many dimensions of this band, which were represented in affecting, mid-tempo performances like “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town” and “Wishlist” and a stripped down acoustic stretch in the first encore that included a lump-in-the-throat-inducing rendition of “Man of the Hour” dedicated to Reed, before which Vedder gave a heartfelt tribute to the iconoclastic songwriter.
That, really, is what distinguishes Pearl Jam from its acolytes and once again puts them on the Springsteen mantle: the ability to do the rock god thing but also write and perform with conviction. Vedder sounded genuinely humbled when he thanked the sell-out crowd, calling their enthusiasm “quite a welcome and an honor for us.” Early in the show, the lead singer pointed to the rafters and called attention to a guy in a yellow shirt for making “an impression” with the way he was jumping up down in the nosebleeds. During the last song of the second encore, Vedder invited the guy up to the front and looked psyched when security made it possible.
Pearl Jam seems to enjoy being a band with a well-defined place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but they also seem in awe to be in that position. Even so, rare is the band that can have Fugazi, Ted Nugent, The Who, The Velvet Underground, and Neil Young as part of one show and make it work.