It was Eddie Vedder's idea of an April Fool's Day joke.
"It's great to be here in Salt Lake City," he said to the near-capacity crowd that packed the aisles and the rafters at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday. It was a nice enough greeting, but there was just one problem — the inaugural show on Pearl Jam's North American tour, a 48-date trek in support of Riot Act, was in Denver. The massive hall swelled with the kind of collective boo normally reserved for, say, Michael Moore onstage at the Oscars.
But Eddie only lost them for a moment. Throughout the nearly three-hour show, he and his longtime bandmates Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron ruled the room with a 25-song set that moved equally through the band's old and new material — sprinkled with healthy doses of politically tinged fury and plain old folly. After a practice performance at the Denver Coliseum the previous evening, the band sounded rehearsed and ready despite the occasional sketchy emanation from the soundboard. When it was all over, a nearly sheared Vedder had mounted his microphone, decapitated the president and offered a mean impression of Tiny Tim.
For over a decade, Pearl Jam have spent more than their fair share of time on the road: 72 date of their 2000 tour in support of Binaural were notoriously documented in a series of "official bootlegs." This time out, fans can access live recordings of the shows online just hours after the last note is played (see "Pearl Jam Announce Online Bootleg Plans, Opening Acts").
Even if their album sales have seen a steady decline with each successive album, Tuesday's show suggested Pearl Jam have not lost their hold on their live audience, an evenly spread collective of newer fans and holdouts from the late, great grunge era. The crowd responded in veritable hysterics to the band's most familiar songs, like "Even Flow," "Corduroy," "Betterman" and "Porch," which morphed into an freeform version of opener Sleater-Kinney's "Dig Me Out." The frat-boy contingent and the old folks seemed a little lost on newer material like "Hail Hail" and "Wishlist."
Two encores brought hits and humor, with Ament, McCready and Gossard appearing content to simply rock out while Vedder stole the show. Wearing a sparkling sequined suit and a George Bush mask, he moved to center stage and mounted the leader of the free world's head — or, a rubber facsimile of it — on a microphone stand like a head on a stake. At times he stood on the sidelines, watching his mates jam as if he were hanging out in some Seattle basement and not onstage in a massive arena. Having spent some of the show smoking cigarettes and taking deep pulls from bottles of red wine, he was riding a pretty good buzz when he stepped out onstage alone with an electric ukulele and stumbled jovially through "Thumbing My Way." (Maybe no one told him you get drunk quickly at high altitudes?)
"That's a tough chord," he said after striking a particularly clunky note. "It's a nervous ukulele."
At other times the mood was not so lighthearted. Always an activist even in times of relative calm, Vedder had plenty to say on the state of the world and the war in Iraq — drawing the ire of some in the crowd. While relaying a story about a pilot friend who'd flown helicopters in the Vietnam War, he stopped to address a heckler.
"Did someone say 'Shut up'?" he said. "I don't know if you've heard about this thing called freedom of speech. It's worth thinking about, because it's going away.
"[This guy had] been there, seen that, seen the ugliness, seen the chaos, and he just doesn't feel like we've evolved at all," Vedder told the crowd.
Pearl Jam later moved away from muckraking and into straightforward, if slightly sloppy, rock on "Go," "Soon Forget" and "Black," which Vedder conducted sing-along style. ("Sing, it feels good," he said.) Following a moody reading of Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary," the house lights came up and the band tried to conjure Crazy Horse, closing with "Rockin' in the Free World." By that point, the audience was not pretty, and neither was the band.
"Thanks from the bottom of our hearts for listening to our songs and listening to the sh-- in between," said Vedder, off to face many more nights on the road and, presumably, many more bottles of wine.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.