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
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.
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.