Grunge gone bad: Pearl Jam still alive-barely


June 20, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Of the 10 Pearl Jam shows I've witnessed in the last 12 years, two stand out. The first was at the Blossom Arts Center outside Cleveland during Lollapalooza '92. The other was at Soldier Field in 1995.

In both cases, the quintet had something to prove. In the first, the group was touring in support of its powerful 1991 debut, "Ten," and it was trying to establish itself as an alternative-rock powerhouse to rival fellow Seattle residents Nirvana. Singer Eddie Vedder literally climbed the rafters of the arena and dangled some 40 feet above the heads of the crowd in order to stir their passions.

In the second case, the band was in the midst of its celebrated battle with Ticketmaster. Soldier Field was one of the few venues in America where it could perform at the time, since the stadium did not have an exclusive contract with the ticketing giant. (That has since changed.)

It has been a very long time since "Ten," which remains Pearl Jam's best album, and the band yielded on the Ticketmaster issue in 1998. As an indication of how badly it lost, a 30-second Internet transaction to purchase a $35 ticket for Wednesday's show at the United Center added $11.25 in service fees--nearly a third again of the ticket price.

In comparison, the group originally started its crusade in 1994 because it was outraged that Ticketmaster had added a service fee of $3.50 to an $18 ticket for a show at the South Side's New Regal Theatre.

Pearl Jam always made the most ordinary, least challenging and least innovative music of the alternative era's superstars, including Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Nine Inch Nails. What made the group special was its burning desire to make a difference, to play by its own rules and not to conform to business as usual in the music industry.

To some extent, that's still true--the aging giants of grunge have fulfilled their contract with Epic Records, and they've said that they do not intend to sign with another major label. But what's sad about Pearl Jam in 2003 is just how ordinary it has become in musical terms.

With too few exceptions during a 2-1/2-hour set, the group that performed for a sold-out crowd at the United Center was just another slick, well-oiled arena-rock cash machine--fundamentally no different than its slavish imitators in Creed (though without the gushing geysers of flame).

The songs that stood out as anthemic sing-alongs all came from early in the band's career--"Even Flow," "Alive" and "Daughter"--while the bulk of the material from recent discs such as "Riot Act" and "Binaural" gained little in live performance and simply sounded repetitive, indistinguishable and monotonous.

In a word, Pearl Jam was boring.

Sure, the musicians went through the motions of playing a fiery arena show. Drummer Matt Cameron, a veteran of Soundgar-den, propelled the tunes in three basic styles (sensitive ballad, rambling mid-tempo groove and fast and furious rocker). Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Mike McCready jumped around a lot, and McCready and Stone Gossard played a lot of extended solos with a lot of extraneous notes (all of which can be summed up as "weedle weedle weedle weedle!").

And then there was Eddie.

The Evanston native paid homage to the Bulls (as he always does when playing in their house), gave a shout-out to his grandmother (who was in attendance), told a pointless story about surfing, performed the controversial song "Bu$hleaguer" (but without any political commentary) and moaned, wailed and howled in his trademark, now often-imitated baritone.

Oh, and as a "treat" for the hometown fans, he started the first of several encores with a solo vocal piece that found him wordlessly dueting with himself, thanks to a harmonizer and a sampler that he used to create an ethereal loop.

This may sound interesting on paper, but it was really just a showy self-indulgence. It was certainly a lot less engaging and energizing than climbing the rafters.

My companion at the show, a veteran rock photographer and one of the most enthusiastic music lovers I know, had never seen Pearl Jam before. He left after only six songs, and I can't say that he missed anything.

The group can be commended for not living in the past, and for forging ahead despite the many obstacles that it's faced. But the fact is, Pearl Jam was a much better band in '92 and '95, and it meant a whole lot more than an evening of loud but generic entertainment.