Pearl Jam has long been renowned for starting shows with a slow burn. Tuesday at the first of a two-night stand at United Center, the band put a fresh twist on the tradition by kicking off a 150-minute set by playing four songs while seated on stools. The sequence established a cozy mood for a performance that transcended traditional notions of a rock concert and instead represented a deep-seated exchange rooted in community, collectivity and solidarity.
Making intimate connections with fans is nothing new for the band. But this particular event — the first area Pearl Jam appearance since August 2018, and the first outside of Wrigley Field since 2009 — conveyed the feeling that the group was hosting an extended family dinner for everyone inside the packed arena. Tales were told, recollections relayed, loves embraced, losses shared, indulgences granted, jokes told, advice dispensed, personal information divulged, guests introduced, changes chronicled. No story or move seemed off limits.
Vocalist-guitarist Eddie Vedder served as the banquet head. In a particularly empathic and reminiscent mood, the Evanston native repeatedly spoke about what Chicago meant to him and expressed gratitude with a heartfelt sincerity. For Vedder and Co., the unfiltered affair functioned as part celebration, part conversation, part home-away-from-home homecoming. And a chance to tighten its bonds with the faithful.
Three decades after the peak of so-called “grunge” — a catchall term for a style Pearl Jam never really embraced — the Seattle group remains the last major band standing from the movement. Other than Mudhoney, it endures as the only collective from that scene to avoid breakups, reunions and deaths. Except for cycling through drummers earlier in its career (Matt Cameron secured the spot in ‘98), Pearl Jam primarily consists of the same crew that graced the Metro stage at the group’s initial Chicago show in July 1991.
Naturally, Pearl Jam is not the same band. Its productivity and visibility pale in comparison to its ‘90s and ‘00s heydays. During the past 10 years, the quintet released just two studio albums. It tapped the brakes on a once-torrid touring schedule that used to see the band spending most of its time on the road. A rumored LP could be forthcoming, though no new material surfaced Tuesday.
The crowd instead got treated to an array of deep cuts and live favorites. Liberated from the unwritten rule that musicians need to load up on hits when playing to the masses at a stadium, Pearl Jam kept things loose and unpredictable. It nearly goes without saying that the relationship the group continues to cultivate with fans affords it a creative license — to stray, surprise, experiment, err — that few other artists enjoy.
Pearl Jam in 2023 qualifies as a cult band with a devoted following. Its habits of changing up setlists and presenting shows without a backdrop so that people can sit behind and to the side of the stage, evoke those of the Grateful Dead. In another parallel, Vedder teased a few loyal folks in the front row that he sees them more than he sees his family.
For the 58-year-old singer, family and friends became interchangeable Tuesday, with each approached in reverent fashion. Vedder spoke at length about his aunt, who died recently, and about attending her memorial service. Her picture flashed on the two projection screens and Pearl Jam dedicated the shimmering “Light Years” to her memory.
He allotted more time to praising his grandmother and her apartment, which he drove past Monday and, upon stopping, met families that currently reside at the building. Cue the photos of Vedder and his new pals on the screens, and an apropos solo cover of “Throw Your Arms Around Me.” As for a European fan who recently died that had traveled with fellow Pearl Jam die-hards? Feted like a beloved relative via a homage and spirited run through “Rearviewmirror.”
Chicago Blackhawks icon Chris Chelios, who inexplicably trod on stage in Evil Knievel attire, didn’t land a tribute. Yet like bygone local writer-historian Studs Terkel, the Chicago-set TV series “The Bear,” the “L” and the Cubs “W” flag, the former defenseman warranted a shoutout. An off-the-cuff rendition of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” — punctuated with lead guitarist Mike McCready donning a jacket featuring the Rockford-based band’s logo — gave one of the area’s music legends its due.
Largely bypassing divisive topics, Pearl Jam focused on staying resolute in the face of challenges and refusing to back down or apologize. The ensemble tapped spiritual veins (the otherworldly drone of “Release”), disguised frightening reality as adventurous sci-fi (a howling “Quick Escape”), veered into electro-funk realms (the pulsing “Dance of the Clairvoyants”) and entertained punk fixations (a rattling “Gods’ Dice,” the urgent “Comatose”).
Augmented by multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer and veteran touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar, the quintet displayed its usual rhythmic sensibility. Pronounced bass lines from Jeff Ament and the melodic soloing of McCready, who spent much of his time pacing a tight perimeter like an animal hemmed in by an invisible fence, sparked the arrangements. Pearl Jam only fell short on older fare (“Animal,” “Not for You”) that demanded a primal rage that, at this stage of the group’s career, sounded faded and overly polite.
There’s nothing amiss, however, with the band’s enthusiasm or chemistry. Despite muddy sonics that robbed detail and caused massed crescendos to become mush, Pearl Jam interacted like guys who still like being in the same room together. Vedder leaped off monitors, executed twirling jumps and managed impressions of Who mainstays Roger Daltrey (microphone cord twirl) and Pete Townshend (windmill guitar chords) — and held everything and everyone together.
Sporting a goatee and neck-length hair, Vedder still possesses a fair amount of his range, though age intruded on his falsetto. In excellent form, he strategically picked spots where to save his voice by bypassing certain parts or letting the audience serenade the band. His deliveries on aggressive songs often came across akin to jabs to the chest or punches to the gut; on meditative tunes, his signature moans, murmurs and rasp dominated.
Back in his old stomping grounds, Vedder and his band were all alright, they were alive. Actually, they were even better if only because they demonstrated an increasingly endangered trait in rock ‘n’ roll: courage.
“At least I’ve got the balls to (expletive) try it,” Vedder declared after announcing he’d derail “Gods’ Dice.” Words to live by for anyone, anywhere.
Pearl Jam with guest Inhaler at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at United Center, 1901 W. Madison St.; www.unitedcenter.com
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
Setlist at the United Center Sept. 5:
“Who Ever Said”
“Dance of the Clairvoyants”
“In My Tree”
“Throw Your Arms Around Me” (Hunters & Collectors cover)
“Not for You”
“Better Man” into “Save It for Later” (English Beat cover)
“Surrender” (Cheap Trick cover)