Early in the first of two concerts at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, Pearl Jam launched into its brooding, heaving rocker Not For You. A woman behind me leaned forward with a question I wasn’t expecting: “What do you do,” she asked, “when this is your four-year-old’s favourite song?” What do you do? The answer is simple: You do the evolution, baby.
Or maybe you don’t. Pearl Jam, the Seattle alt-rock titans who are the subject of Cameron Crowes’ retrospective documentary Pearl Jam Twenty , which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, haven’t actually evolved a whole lot over their two-decade career, at least musically. As the darkly-droning baritone Eddie Vedder sang on the sweeping poetry of Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, “I changed by not changing at all.” It’s all about the switching context around them, altering our perception of how much Pearl Jam matters.
Whether in fashion or not – and Pearl Jam has been both of those things – the band endures with melodic guitar rock, leanly and boldly presented, especially on stage, where their level of consistency, charismatic passion and generosity of energy is fairly unparalleled.
In fact, after watching the first 100 minutes of a routinely impressive thriller on Sunday, there would be only a few acts that might come to mind when looking at other careers marked by such a robust stamina. One would be Neil Young, who, as it happened, capped off Pearl Jam’s epic night with a walk-on during the marathon finale of Young’s anthemic Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World, presented stunningly in the waning hours that marked a decade since 9/11. It was something to see, the punks and the godfather – Young being such a model and inspiration for Pearl Jam and the so many others who have followed him.
Is the world freer now than it was 10 years ago? Libyans and Egyptians might say yes; those who endure airport security scrutiny and Guantanamo Bay might disagree. The cloud-nine crowd at Air Canada Centre probably wasn’t worrying about it – not on this night. The world evolves (or so the thinking goes), but engagements with Pearl Jam are held in a very loud, euphoric and safe vacuum where everyone knows the words.
The concert began with Long Road, released in 1995 as part of a collaboration with Young. Its grunge was jangly, its melody was heartening and its message concerning journeys, memories and longing was thoughtful. The sardonic Do the Evolution – “admire me, admire my home / admire my son, he’s my clone” – followed.
As you might imagine, the event was well attended by people judged to be important – actors Woody Harrelson and Jay Baruchel, and directors Crowe and Paul Haggis among them – but Vedder and crew do not play to Hollywood. The singer used stage monitors as a personal jungle gym and was easygoing (in contrast to his sometimes sullen singing) between songs. Before the first encore set began with the acoustic ballad Nothingman, he noted the similarities between Toronto and Seattle. “We share large concrete erections and, yeah, we know, yours is bigger,” he allowed, before adding that his town’s tower had “kind of a nice shape.”
The first encore set ended with Black, from the band’s breakout debut album Ten. The pensive ballad stretched into a watery jam, with lead guitarist Mike McCready stretching out with an elegant sort of searing guitar – electric surfing against the band’s slow, heavy wave.
In the documentary, bassist Jeff Ament speaks about Pearl Jam’s work ethic. The gist of it is that the group never mails it in, and that it’s always been about “pure stoke.”
Three cheers and hip-hip hooray, then, to pure stoke, 20 years and counting. Evolution, devolution, status quo – Pearl Jam pays it all no mind, staying the course.
- At Air Canada Centre
- In Toronto on Sunday
Pearl Jam plays Toronto, Sept. 12; Ottawa, Sept. 14; Hamilton, Sept. 15; Winnipeg, Sept. 17; Saskatoon, Sept. 19; Calgary, Sept. 21; Edmonton, Sep. 23; Vancouver, Sept. 25.
Do The Evolution
Nothing As it Seems
Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town
Not For You / Modern Girl
Given To Fly
Off He Goes
Daughter / It’s OK
Better Man / Save it for Later
Crown Of Thorns
Rockin’ In The Free World