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Pearl Jam at Xcel Energy Center, 10/19/14

Pearl Jam
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pearl Jam shows have been sporting-event-level ginormous for much of their two-decade existence. The Seattle grunge survivors rock arenas and stadiums nightly to band-shirt-wearing, sign-toting crowds who tailgate, road-trip, message board about it, and repeat. These card-carrying Ten Club members were in Moline the other night when the guys played No Code all the way through -- undoubtedly spiritually, if not physically.

For more than 20 years, the group has nurtured their formidable base with sprawling, nostalgia-stoking shows to be cherished again and again via high-quality bootleg. Some folks have seen enough, but Sunday's Xcel hosted 18,000 strong for the band's first public Twin Cities concert in eight years. Whether or not they loved last year's Lightning Bolt, these were folks who were ready to pump their fists and play call-and-response with Eddie Vedder's falsetto like the "manly men from Minnesota" that they were. "Does it help to grab your balls?" he asked them, only half-joking.

See also:
Slideshow: Pearl Jam Rock the Xcel

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It's easy to imagine an overwhelming percentage of the crowd donning baseball caps, flannels, strong handshakes, and forests of facial hair. (And in at least one case, a Mexican wrestling mask later borrowed by Vedder.) This is not incorrect. Especially at a time when the cred of professional sports resides in the toilet, it's a great time to be a Pearl Jam fan.

For all of the band's macho posturing -- lead guitarist Mike McCready in an Eclipse Records tee hit his solos like a speed bag -- there are strident themes in a Pearl Jam setlist not particularly ripe for a workout mix.

Issues of social justice, domestic violence, personal estrangement, and ever-approaching death diluted the bro quotient, and upped the purposeful thrust of the proceedings. When's the last time a KISS concert stopped abruptly to bring a U of M doctor onstage advocating for donations to fight the debilitating skin affliction Epidermolysis Bullosa?

You couldn't get the punk fury of "Mind Your Manners," the wine-drenched self-deprecation, the lunges of a still-athletic Jeff Ament, and Matt Cameron's smothering percussive tendencies without at least a fleeting peek at your sensitive side. (Also, to prevent a lot of muscular folks from literally moshing until people die at your show, some concessions when it comes to tempo and volume must be made.)

At best, the mellow segments of the night provided a good cleanse. Ten closer "Release" in the early going, with enormous blue light bulbs dangling around the stage, played to the group's understated strengths. Whatever noise was lacking onstage during "Daughter" was filled by a lusty sing-along.

The people paid to hear some tumultuous rock 'n' roll, after all, too. The shifting dynamics of "I Got Id" (after a "Hey Joe" riff nodding to Jimi Hendrix), sludge paradise of "Corduroy," and main set closer "Rearviewmirror" was ready to run off the rails. Many a cherished guitar god never came up with anything as creative -- and as hard to pull off live -- as any of those songs. Even with a voice that sometimes came up damaged, Vedder let his physicality push his bandmates forward.

The transition out of a pummeling "Even Flow" was notably disappointing. Too much of a Matchbox Twenty vibe lurked in "Sirens," and "Love Boat Captain" failed to assert itself as more than filler to showcase pony-tailed keyboardist Boom Gaspar. Vedder tacked a bit of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" onto the latter, which only served as a reminder of the countless songs with more of a backbone that could've filled that time.

(The generous would argue that 30-plus songs in a three-hour set is bound to have some obvious bathroom breaks, but hey, why cede the audience's attention to a giant scrap metal sculpture hanging above the stage for even a second?)

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So yeah, about those three hours. Had Pearl Jam skipped the main set and played only the two encores -- packed with career-definers ("Alive," "Last Kiss," "Black"), rarities ("Footsteps"), and covers (John Lennon's "Imagine," Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World") -- folks would've gotten an impressive display. Hell, you got that just listening to McCready's solos alone. Like a Bruce Springsteen show, though, hanging for all of this was a feat of endurance that went into extra innings.

At this point, Pearl Jam itself is a feat of endurance. Vedder joked about his hearing and vision being shot, the guys have cut their hair, and pre-gamers at the Liffey were coming to terms with the words "classic rock" being associated with this band.

"I change by not changing at all," Vedder sang during the more-tender-than-its-mouthful-of-a-title-could-ever-suggest "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." And this is mostly true -- we'll save the ukelele discussion for another time -- when you look at a night of veteran songs from a veteran band with veteran fans. What holds this type of team together are the high expectations and trust held by all parties involved. That, and a few cases of wine.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Not a Ten Club member, and admittedly a bit tired of too much earnest rock after three hours. Once you trim a little setlist fat away, though, this is still a lot of fun.

The Crowd: Emotionally attached.

Random Detail: An attempt at "Alive" was shot down so that Vedder could lead "Setting Forth" while wearing a Minnesota Wild jersey. Wisely, they still let Stone Gossard play those anthemic riffs later in the encore.

Setlist:

Pendulum
Release
Nothingman
Go
Life Wasted
Corduroy
Lightning Bolt
Mind Your Manners
Save You
Even Flow
Sirens
Love Boat Captain
Daughter
I Got Id
The Fixer
Unthought Known
Given to Fly
Rearviewmirror

Encore:
Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Thin Air
Footsteps
Imagine (John Lennon)
Last Kiss (Wayne Cochran)
Why Go
Do the Evolution
Porch

Encore 2:
Black
Setting Forth (Eddie Vedder)
Better Man
Alive
Rockin' in the Free World (Neil Young)
Indifference

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