Pearl Jam, Arco Arena, Sacramento, Calif


Christopher Hawthorne
July 24, 1998 10:53PM (UTC)

As every fan of Pearl Jam knows, there are two Eddie Vedders.

There's Thoughtful Eddie: Genuine and steadfast, he's the one who rejects all the trappings of rock stardom, turns down entreaties from supermodels in favor of domestic serenity with his wife, Beth Liebling, and battles nasty corporations like Ticketmaster on behalf of his fans.

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Then there's Bitter Eddie. He's the one who sounds so spiteful in the press, alternately promotes and bemoans his status as Pearl Jam's mouthpiece and seems to bear the weight of the world on his 34-year-old shoulders. This is the Eddie who, accepting an award at the 1996 Grammies for "Spin the Black Circle," announced acidly, "I don't know what this means. I don't think it means anything ... Thanks, I guess."

Both Eddies were on hand last Thursday night at Sacramento's sterile and gleaming Arco Arena, home of the NBA's perennially hapless Kings and the only Northern California stop on Pearl Jam's 17-city summer tour. Performing for nearly two hours in front of five huge candles and a plain hanging backdrop, the band (with Matt Cameron, late of Soundgarden, filling in for Jack Irons on drums) looked relaxed and purposeful, playing songs from each of its five albums with blue-collar zeal.

Vedder, dressed in a black leather jacket and cargo pants, swung wildly between the extremes of his famously conflicted personality. He scowled. He spit -- a lot, at times aiming his saliva toward the crowd. He returned to an old habit by carrying a wine bottle around the stage, and took long swigs from it during Mike McCready's guitar solos, his legs wobbling beneath him. At one point, he picked up a Converse sneaker that someone had tossed on stage, filled it with wine, and lifted it with a sneer as an ironic toast to the fans. He forgot the lyrics to two songs. At one point, he mumbled something about how "you guys pissed me off before," apparently talking about the unruly crowd.

But Vedder was also dreamy and hopeful on this night. He offered a loving speech to X, who opened the show and whom he called "the better band," clamping his hand to his breast in heartfelt tribute and looking ready to wipe away a tear. And he encouraged his fans in a kindly, avuncular sort of way, telling them they were young and had a lot to look forward to, that they were surrounded by caring people "who think like you do, and that's something."

Contradiction is the main thing keeping Pearl Jam interesting these days, especially as its music becomes less groundbreaking and more self-absorbed. Since the wildly popular 1991 debut, "Ten," which helped push all things grunge into the mainstream, Pearl Jam has retreated into a quirkier, more thoughtful sound, struggling to find itself over the course of four subsequent albums. Meanwhile, the members of the band have made a conscious effort to whittle down their fan base to a manageable level. They haven't made a video since 1992's "Jeremy," they rarely submit to interviews and they mostly regard promotional efforts with disdain. Given how much attention they earned during their first year and a half in existence, they've maintained a remarkably low profile.

Just as they've never met a reporter they didn't distrust, the members of Pearl Jam appear never to have encountered a cause they couldn't embrace. In 1994, the quintet, backed by the Justice Department, tried to fight Ticketmaster's choke hold on American arenas and concert halls. (Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, dressed in their Seattle best, even visited Capitol Hill to offer testimony to a congressional panel.) They've played countless benefits for everything from Neil Young's school for disabled kids to abortion rights to a free Tibet. This hide-and-seek act has had a predictably screwy effect on the public. The group, despite a steady number of high-visibility bouts of conscience, has managed to slip to the margins of the American public's musical radar. While following other bands on their voyages of musical self-discovery -- like the Beastie Boys, say, who've never lost their sense of humor -- has been effortlessly entertaining, with Pearl Jam it's always felt like a bit of a slog.

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As a result, the band over time has cut out the middle of its fan base, alienating the knowledgeable but hardly fanatic listener who liked its music but who wasn't willing to go to great lengths to seek it out. Now that those fans are gone -- having graduated to Radiohead or Sublime or Pavement or the Verve -- Pearl Jam concerts are essentially filled with two opposing groups: the martyrs, diehards who make a point of following a band that makes itself difficult to follow, and the casual fans, most of whom never even noticed that the band was trying to avoid the spotlight but still have every lyric from "Ten" cemented somewhere in the deepest recesses of their brains.

This second group, the less-than-fully committed followers, is made up of a surprisingly large percentage of -- let's be blunt, shall we? -- meatheads. These are not the disenfranchised or outcast kids who throng together at punk shows. They are just middle-class, mostly white college kids who respond, as if on cue, with seemingly choreographed outbursts of ugliness as soon as they hear the first downbeat of any one of Pearl Jam's many testosterone-fueled anthems.

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Last week in Sacramento, I tried to get as close to the stage as possible to gather yet more evidence that something about Pearl Jam's music seems to bring out the inner idiot in their fans. The crowd did not disappoint, filling the floor of Arco Arena with a blast furnace of mindless aggression and providing a steady stream of entertaining commentary. Right before Pearl Jam came on, I overheard this conversation:

"Wanna hear my favorite joke of all time?"

"Sure."

"What do you say to a woman with no arms and no legs?"

"What?"

"Nice tits!"

Of course, Pearl Jam doesn't have a whole lot of control over who comes to their shows: Populism has its pros and cons, as Nirvana quickly learned when it won mainstream success and Kurt Cobain noticed that the kind of guys who beat him up in high school were now shelling out $35 to see him perform. Eddie Vedder, certainly, can relate. But there is something about Pearl Jam's music -- particularly its earlier stuff -- that demands very little from its listeners: For a lot of people, it's a safe vehicle for release that just happens to come packaged in musical form. And I think Pearl Jam deserves blame for, at the least, promoting low expectations. Though the band always plays with sincerity and grit, it rarely challenges or surprises its audiences. The fan who spends the afternoon in the parking lot preparing for a Pearl Jam show by drinking beer and blasting "Ten" out of the back of his car, and comes in looking to throw down, gets just what he expects: six or seven headbanging tunes to provide the soundtrack to his bullying trips through the crowd.

In Sacramento, Pearl Jam played a stirring but generally unimaginative set, which included all the big hits from "Ten" ("Alive," "Jeremy," "Even Flow"). The first of two encores pushed the show to its high point, stringing together "Do the Evolution" from the band's new album, "Yield," with the lovely "Better Man" and "In My Tree." Pearl Jam played to the point of exhaustion, finishing with a knock-down, drag-out version of "Yellow Ledbetter," and the fans responded by cheering themselves silly. At the end it was hard not to feel at least sated. To Eddie and company, for giving the crowd what they thought we came to hear, only one response seemed appropriate: Thanks, I guess.

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Christopher Hawthorne

Christopher Hawthorne is arts editor of the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif.

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