Pearl Jam Won’t Back Down

By A. J. UrquidiMay 27, 2024

Pearl Jam Won’t Back Down
PEARL JAM: DARK MATTER TOUR with DEEP SEA DIVER, Kia Forum, Inglewood, May 22, 2024.

I, a regular concert frequenter, have never encountered anything like the novelty I experienced at Pearl Jam’s second night at the Kia Forum on Wednesday.

The Seattle grunge stalwarts continue to outlast peers, uncrippled by infamous overdoses, tragic suicides, and career burnouts that scythed down others since the scene’s early-1990s peak. Next-gen knockoff “scrunge” bands are now booking mid-state fairs and free beach concerts—yet Pearl Jam, once the fly in Ticketmaster’s ointment, are filling arenas in 2024 with nosebleed seats priced at twice what I paid for a 2009 Coachella day pass. How?

Partially, it’s due to their unique fan-funded ecosystem: its magnitude shook me as I approached the Forum-adjacent merch circus. The band’s name was slapped on dozens of distinctly varied shirts, hoodies, hats, Lakers-colored basketballs, posters, skateboard decks—several custom-designed for May 22, never to be sold again. I sought a reference point to process my shock—is this what it was once like to worship the Grateful Dead? Phish? One Direction? Fans were relishing it, forking over hundreds for the “DM Tour Koozie” and “Commemorative Event Token” collection. Had these Gen-X elders finally succumbed, accepting management jobs after their cynical youth revolution petered out?

One guy warmly joshed me for struggling to roll a limited-edition-holographic-certified poster into a $3.00 Uline tube; metaphysically, meanwhile, I was wrestling with the fact that proceeds were funneling not only to the band, designers, and event staff but also to the irredeemable Uihlein family and their unceasing campaign to subvert democracy, in direct violation of the band’s idealistic principles. Pshaw! Regardless, I’d passed the initiation test and was welcomed inside, cognitive dissonance in tow.

That disconcerting commercialism faded once I arrived at the stage, hypnotized by opener Deep Sea Diver’s girl-jam—an apt tour-mate choice, given that one must deep-dive into the sea to retrieve pearls (and jam?). Motorik grooves and guitar solos swelled with the crowd size. Their washed-out road-trip aesthetic situated them somewhere on the Japanese Breakfast–War on Drugs spectrum: epic, synthy, intimate.

But space-outs were forbidden once Eddie Vedder jaunted onstage to the attentive roar of devotees. Founding members Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Mike McCready, plus ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, helped him summon ancient anthems from Pearl Jam’s platinum debut Ten (1991), including “Alive,” “Porch,” and my go-to karaoke song about school shootings, “Jeremy.” Mid-1990s deep cuts like “All Those Yesterdays” filled the space between Ten and last month’s Dark Matter, which saw the band kicking some ass again after 2010s doldrums, delivering McCready fresh opportunities for characteristic guitar fireworks. In a jersey-jacket-cap combo, Vedder frequently wisecracked between wine-bottle gulps, reminding me of the archetypal gas station attendants who perish in every slasher film’s first act. His bandmates traded career-making flannels and shorts for mellow-neighbor garb, looking nonvolatile enough to organize a suburban cookout.

In that vein, new dad-rock ballad “Wreckage” accompanied a slo-mo, upside-down wave breaking on-screen, visually tracking sonic surges between Springsteen and “Learning to Fly.” Later, Vedder paid explicit tribute to Tom Petty when he worked lyrics from “The Waiting” into the “Black” coda. For the encore, Vedder reemerged alone to recount how this guitar had unlocked a wealth of songwriting, muse-like, in its lifetime—it was a friend’s guitar, a gift from …you guessed it, the late Tom Petty, sorely missed. Vedder harnessed its power to cover “I Won’t Back Down,” and we cried, because the Benjaminian aura exuded by Petty’s instrument through another rock legend was the closest we’d get to seeing the troubadour live again, in both senses of the word.

We were moved by the authenticity of Vedder’s various dedications, as the stadium grew increasingly haunted by spirits: that of his Uncle John (10 years gone) and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins; the ghost of George Bush Sr. in the finale rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World”; the phantom of grunge, the long-dead cultural moment that claimed many artists’ lives; the shadow of a generation’s fight against consumer capitalism, defeated by the disappointment of barely making a dent. Dark matter, to human senses, is negation, an imperceptible gravity-bearing force that accounts for more than a quarter of the universe’s total matter, five times as much as observable matter. Pearl Jam found a way to alchemize such heavy absence at the Forum, to condense contradictions into acceptable uncertainty and a kinetic celebration of life, an energy I felt moving through me, an even flow arriving like butterflies. I wouldn’t dream of chasing them away.

¤


Photo by contributor.

LARB Short Takes live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

A. J. Urquidi is the copydesk chief of Los Angeles Review of Books and co–executive editor of indicia.

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