Pearl Jam can't keep up with furious '90s pace


May 18, 2006


Is Pearl Jam the new Grateful Dead? The comparison has been prompting vigorous debate on fan Web sites for some time, and it has started to filter into the press because of the most obvious similarities.

Both bands could fill arenas even as their album sales lagged. Both inspired legions of obsessive fans to collect recordings of every live performance. Both espoused plenty of hippie rhetoric and proudly treated their followings as extended families, and both benefitted from late-career comebacks overseen by Clive Davis -- with Pearl Jam in the midst of its own now courtesy of a new self-titled album on Davis' J Records.

Most of these points are admittedly superficial. For me, the biggest connection comes in the form of a mystery: There was no denying the almost religious devotion accorded Pearl Jam on Tuesday at the United Center during the first of two sold-out shows. But it was impossible for this skeptic to hear how the often sloppy, lackluster or generic sounds generated onstage could possibly prompt such rabid enthusiasm.

The sheer physicality of Pearl Jam's tours in the early 1990s was enough to convert any doubter, and the "us against the world" vibe was very real at the Chicago Stadium in March '94 and Soldier Field in July '95 in the midst of the band's epic battle with Ticketmaster.

But the Last Surviving Seattle Grunge Group has been on cruise control ever since, when what it really needs is to follow a reverse speed limit.

Pearl Jam simply shouldn't be allowed to play slower than 140 beats per minutes.

Things started fast and furious on Wednesday, with the group unleashing a flurry of roundhouse blows via the hard-hitting openers "Release," "World Wide Suicide," "Life Wasted," "Severed Hand" and "Comatose," the last four from its new album, and all of them stronger live than on album.

These new songs may not have had the anthemic cell-phones-in-the-air qualities of "Evenflow," "Jeremy" or "Alive," which came later on, but at least they had a pulse.

"Hello, Chicago," Evanston native Eddie Vedder said in the midst of this opening assault. "Can't talk now -- we have work to do!"

But the musicians' work ethic began to drag more than the clock-watching laborers at a city construction site as the group shifted into slower, more turgid and just plain boring numbers such as "Given to Fly," "Low Light" and "Corduroy."

And the show never regained its momentum as the band continued alternating among pounding rockers, lugubrious ballads and meandering jams through the rest of the long, long night.

Vedder is playing a lot more guitar these days, and that's always a bad sign in a band that already has enough axes: Think of Mick Jagger trying to disguise the fact that he needs more stand-still breathing time between bouts of frontman athleticism. Even worse, Pearl Jam resorted to hoary arena-rock cliches such as flashing green lasers worthy of Boston or Journey and shout-outs to beloved fans and long-since-retired hometown hero Michael Jordan.

The lately hirsute Vedder was in fine though typically mush-mouthed voice, though it's impossible to resist noting that the bushy beard does make him resemble a young Jerry Garcia.

Bassist Jeff Ament remains a powerhouse and the unheralded soul of the band. But drummer Matt Cameron was either poorly amplified or under-caffeinated, and the six-string tag team of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard was annoyingly self-indulgent, unfurling endless high-register "wheedle wheedle wheedle" solos rather than the impressive rhythm-guitar pummelings of old.

Then there were those jams. Granted, these were shorter than anything the Dead ever tortured us with, but the extended vamps on "Evenflow" and "Daughter" were pointless and distracting nonetheless. And detours into covers of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" and the Who's "Baba O'Riley" were even more pandering and more dated than the praise heaped upon the Chicago Bulls.

Listen, fellas: The Bulls' last championship season is now a decade behind us. And so, I'm afraid, are the best days of Pearl Jam.