One of Seattle’s original grunge bands hit Toronto, touring behind their 2020 album Gigaton this past week. Pearl Jam finally was able to make good on the Covid-postponed Canadian leg of their North American tour. Eddie Vedder and the boys were in fine form and ready to kick ass, eventually. As the show lights went down, Canadian icon Gord Downie’s haunting hymn “Here, Here and Here” prerecorded from the PA set the tone for the beginning of the show.
Opening with the band seated across the front of the stage, it was a low-key acoustic affair starting with “Daughter,” “Come Back,” and “Sometimes.” Earlier that day, it was announced that Queen Elizabeth II had passed away at 96, and Vedder paid tribute with “about 90 seconds of Paul McCartney” and the Beatles’ with “Her Majesty” solo on acoustic guitar.
After the first four seated, the high-energy Pearl Jam show that gets fans up and dancing got going. Maybe after such a long forced hiatus, easing into each show might be a smart idea.
Putting together a show where the band has over 12 hours of music of a generation to choose from results in a setlist that can polarize the fans at their shows. Pearl Jam puts enough hit power into the shows, but at the same time, they like to change it up at every show. They touched on 8 of their 11 studio albums plus the EP Merkin Ball with mainstays like “Jeremy,” “Even Flow,” and “Corduroy.” But they also went deeper with tracks like “All Those Yesterdays,” “I Got Id,” and “Come Back.”
Covers have always been a staple at Pearl Jam shows, even if it’s just a verse or two, a chorus or an intro to get the crowd’s attention. The first bits of “Interstellar Overdrive” from Pink Floyd was an awesome modern take on the 1967 psychedelic prog rock ride.
30 odd years in, and the band are as tight and powerful as ever. Vedder quipped that back in 1991, they played The Concert Hall in Toronto and did “Deep” from their debut album Ten and said, “I think we play it better now.” He’s absolutely right. Those same 30 years smack the petulant child out of you so you can get down to business.
Guitarist Mike McCready still holds court in his stage space jumping around and engaging the crowd like a 20-year-old though. He and bassist Jeff Ament share that space and play off each other to keep the energy up. Guitarist and co-lyricist Stone Gossard keeps to himself primarily on the other side of the stage but lets his thundering guitar do the talking. Drummer Matt Cameron killed it as usual on the kit.
Frontman Eddie Vedder never ceases to amaze. Wrestling with his mic stand, his guitar, and even an antique pump organ, his energy level and charisma are unmatched. Channelling both Pete Townshend’s signature windmill guitar work and Roger Daltry’s microphone lasso whipping, Vedder is a student of the classics that came before him.
Gone are the days of scaling sound rigging and dropping into the open arms of the sea of mosh pit dwellers. But now he’s a more complex and complete showman. Bantering with the crowd, telling stories about having a drink with The Tragically Hip in the studio next door to theirs back in the day, making note of, and calling out the misspellings of his name on painted signs in the crowd, he truly looks like he’s comfortable in his own skin. One sign, in particular, said, “Play Light Years for Gord, RIP.” During the first song of the encore, or as Vedder put it, the third period, he asked for that sign to be passed forward, then held it up and draped it on his monitors before launching into “Light Years.” Gord Downie hit us on such a deep emotional level; he just keeps being front of mind.
Pearl Jam lets the music do the talking, and they tour with a stripped-down stage setup with minimal extras. Just the instruments, some moving light rigging, a couple of video screens to the sides and themselves. And they play with no backdrop behind them, so the seats all the way around the venue can be filled with raving fans. Those behind the stage seats are some of the best in the building. And the band always takes the time throughout the show to acknowledge those fans. During the encore, the band moved to the rear of the stage, where there was a smaller drum kit set up facing the back sections, and played the tour debut of “Last Kiss” right to those fans.
The last three songs of the night are arguably a perfect Pearl Jam storm of energy to go out with a bang!
Those core memory bass notes in the intro to “Jeremy” brought the crowd to their feet and singing over the PA. “Ooo Ahhhh, Oh, Oh Oh Oh Oh Ohhhhhhhhhhh.” 1991 is never gonna die.
Next up was a perfect example of how musicians are just as human as the rest of us. Stone Gossard launched into “Leash” but realized he had the wrong guitar and stopped the song. While the short hiccup was happening, Matt Cameron was filling the void with a wall of drums, and Ament threw in 5 instantly recognizable bass notes from “Cygnus X-1, which would make any solid Rush fan in the building smile.
Gossard’s tech handed him another guitar, and he started “Alive.” Realizing that was the wrong next song Vedder motioned to just keep it going. Which resulted in McCready and Ament rushing to their techs to get their correct guitars for that song. “Alive,” one of the ’90s consummate life anthems roared, the house lights were brought up, and 19,000 friends fist pumped and sang their hearts out. The night closed out with the lights still on and the band playing one of their favourite rally cry tunes, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Two and half years of waiting melted away as the music took over and brought us back to life.
Multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer, performing as Pluralone, opened the show with his one-man show. Showing his guitar prowess with all manner of effects and musical tapestries, it’s clear why he was a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers from 2009–2019 and inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 with the band. And at only 32, he’s the youngest living inductee to the Hall. He’s also been tapped to be a touring/session guitarist for Pearl Jam currently. Armed with a tiny Canadian flag in his back pocket, which he placed on his keyboard/sequencer rack part way through, he powered through his 40-minute eclectic set. And it took a confident player to pull out his own interpretation of Rush’s “Limelight” for the band’s hometown crowd. Not a bad job at all.