VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Toward the beginning of Pearl Jam's tour-opening show Thursday night, singer Eddie Vedder stared out at the first crowd he'd faced since the worst tragedy of his band's career.
"Be careful," he said gently, reminding fans in the GTE Virginia Beach Amphitheater's lawn section that the ground they stood on was slippery from the day's rain. It was the first of the evening's haunting reminders of the deaths that occurred at the band's most recent performance.
During Pearl Jam's set at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark at the end of June, eight fans were crushed to death by a surging crowd, possibly after slipping in mud. A ninth fan suffered injuries in the crush that later proved fatal. The group began Thursday's show with an elegiac version of the B-side "Long Road," a song about painful goodbyes: "And the wind keeps roaring/ And the sky keeps turning gray/ And the sun is set/ The sun will rise another day," Vedder sang, strumming a Telecaster.
The singer, who was sporting a beard Thursday, even more explicitly summoned the ghosts of Roskilde during "Daughter" (RealAudio excerpt) — a song that the band had been forced to stop performing at the Danish festival while Vedder begged fans to move back from the stage. "The last time we asked the crowd to do something, it was under completely different circumstances," Vedder said on Thursday. "It's a little nerve-wracking, [but it would] be nice to start anew. I'm gonna ask you to do something; maybe you'll do it."
As the band segued into a cover of "It's O.K.," a life-affirming anthem by cult-rockers Dead Moon, Vedder told the audience, "Sing loud because it's outside, and sing loud because you're still alive." Clearly aware of the context, the capacity crowd more than obliged the singer, shouting back the song's title phrase as he repeated it in his famously quavery baritone. Though pensive to that point in the performance, Vedder seemed liberated by the response, leaping in the air at the song's conclusion and applauding along with the audience. He and the band then moved into an exuberant version of their hit "Better Man." Fans said the mood of the rest of the band seemed lighter from then on.
"I felt a little bit of redemption there, somewhere in the middle, after he started talking about [Roskilde]," said Brian Cooley, 23, of Virginia Beach. Pearl Jam had canceled the remainder of their European tour in the aftermath of Roskilde, and some fans had expressed concern that their U.S. tour might be canceled as well.
Throughout Thursday's show, the passionate commitment of Vedder's vocals recalled Pearl Jam's early days. He closed his eyes, shook his head and roared on rockers such as "Animal" and "Do the Evolution." Lead guitarist Mike McCready served as Vedder's musical foil throughout the show, wrenching solo after Hendrix-like solo out of his Stratocasters, including a funk Stevie Ray Vaughan-type break in "Evenflow." Former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, a relatively recent addition to the band, played with similar abandon, lending beefy backbeats even to such formerly plaintive ballads as the "Wishlist."
In addition to older songs — which also included a cathartic, show-closing "Yellow Ledbetter" — the band, which also includes guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, also played numerous tracks from its most recent album, Binaural, including the singles "Nothing As It Seems" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Light Years."
"It was more of a mellow show, but it was good because it really was a healing vibe," said Lissy Beaver, an 18-year-old fan from Atlanta. Noise-rock icons Sonic Youth opened Thursday's show with an assured, typically feedback-soaked set that looked back at their own past, with such vintage songs as "Tom Violence" and "Kool Thing," while also including tracks from their own new album, NYC Ghosts & Flowers.
Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth are scheduled to play next on Friday (Aug. 4) in Charlotte, N.C.