Pearl Jam at the Garden

Less is still more
By MATT ASHARE  |  May 26, 2006

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THE PEOPLE'S BAND: Pearl Jam is for you, if you'll have them

After a dozen or more years of taking crap from friends for insisting that Pearl Jam are always great live, I was ready to call bullshit on Wednesday, at the first of two shows at the Whoever’s-Sponsoring-It-Now Garden. With hordes of big guys in baseball hats bustling past me on the way in, hooting and hollering for no particular purpose, I was off to a good start. “Woo-hoo.” That’s right, you’re at the Garden. Shut the hell up and find your seats.

And then, with little fanfare — no explosions or giant video screens — five guys sauntered on a stage and, well, just started playing. You could argue that Pearl Jam take the theater out of the arena. But there’s so much drama down there in the songs — in the performances, too, in the obvious pleasure guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament take in laying down a solid, supple foundation with drummer Matt Cameron, and in Vedder’s tight-fisted, full-throated delivery. Anything more than some sparingly used green lasers would be too much. Pearl Jam have become the people’s band for those who are willing to have them. It’s an enviable position: no image is the image, no change the expectation. Their overly intense attention to squeezing every last drop of emotion out of every last song — an ailment that once seemed destined to bring Pearl Jam crashing down — has been replaced by a more easygoing atmosphere. The arrival of keyboardist Kenneth "Boom" Gaspar, the long-haired giant from Hawaii who’s insinuated himself into the band as Vedder’s mellowing agent over the past several years, has helped. Vedder didn’t make any over political statements (unless you count dedicating the new “Unemployable” to graduating college students), not even when playing the war-torn rockers “Severed Hand” and “World Wide Suicide” (which came early enough in the set for 11-year-old Jimmy, sitting next to me with his dad, to hear them — and “Evenflow”! — before his first nap.)

Vedder, wine bottle in hand, did make a suspect comment about Boston being special to Pearl Jam. It’s the kind of thing you’d write off as showbizzing, except that there’s some actual history: their first show after Kurt Cobain’s suicide was here, local academic icon Howard Zinn joined them on stage a couple years later, and during one infamous three-night stand they played the entire Pearl Jam songbook. And once again, Pearl Jam struck paydirt in Boston: it happened to be Bob Dylan’s 65th birthday. Vedder saluted him in the first encore with a shaky “Forever Young” and slightly stronger “Masters of War.” An inspired “Crazy Mary” that climaxed with an epic Hammond organ solo (replete with cries of “BOOM” from the crowd) finally got the band rolling again. Jimmy was back on his feet. And, as usual, Pearl Jam had been great. Damn them.
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