Looking back at the performance footage that makes up Pearl Jam’s music video for Alive and you witness a ritual of the times. You had a pack of shirtless Seattle upstarts engaging an audience with the kind of youthful immediacy that rock ’n’ roll had not seen since the height of the punk movement more than a decade earlier.
It was all there: a guitar attack with bountiful hooks, a singer wheezing and wailing like a man possessed and, most of all, a crowd that hung on every riff and word before hurling itself directly into the resulting storm. It was anger. It was celebration. Or as Pearl Jam would surmise, some eight years later on its fifth studio album Yield, “It’s evolution, baby.”
The thing is, in 2016, it really is about evolution — namely, the one Pearl Jam has experienced now that its 25th anniversary has come and gone. Nearly every other flannel packing troupe that followed Pearl Jam out of Seattle at the dawn of the 1990s has either crash landed or lost the nerve and drive that first distinguished their music. But Pearl Jam has persevered with nearly all its founding lineup — frontman Eddie Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and bassist Jeff Ament — intact. Shifts in the drum chair, which has been occupied since 1998 by Matt Cameron, and the 2002 addition of touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar constitute the only personnel changes since Pearl Jam became a perhaps reticent torchbearer of the grunge generation beginning with 1991’s vanguard Ten album.
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How that translates into today’s marketplace is especially curious. As it journeys to Rupp Arena for the first time since 2003 (13 years ago to the week), Pearl Jam has no new music to hawk (2013’s Lightning Bolt remains the most recent work). As such, it enters that sagely stage of a band’s lifespan where evolution flirts dangerously with nostalgia. Such potential conflict looms especially large in 2016. Now that Pearl Jam has past the quarter century mark, it has become eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter how you view it, such a milestone is a rite of passage from flannel rocker to gold-watch elder. Hey, it’s evolution, baby.
Ament said to Rolling Stone in March: “There’s this part of me that doesn’t want to look back anymore and just wants to keep moving forward, keep growing and keep trying to make a great record and have better shows, and be a better musician and a better bandmate and not think too much about accolades.”
There have already been instances within the past two weeks of Pearl Jam balancing past glories with current urgencies. Both involve the word “Carolina.”
On April 16, the band played its 1993 album Vs. in its entirety without any advance promotion during a show in Greenville, S.C. But four days later, Vedder and company became one of the latest acts to cancel a North Carolina outing — specifically, one in Raleigh — over the controversial HB2 law, which prevents enacting non-discrimination policies based on gender identity while mandating students in state schools use bathrooms corresponding to their gender at birth.
“The HB2 law that was recently passed is a despicable piece of legislation that encourages discrimination against an entire group of American citizens,” reads a handwritten note posted last week on Pearl Jam’s website. “The practical implications are expansive and its negative impact upon basic human rights is profound.”
In sheer musical terms, though, there has always been a remarkable transparency to the band’s performance vigor. Pearl Jam was making downloads and CDs available of its concerts long before the practice even remotely caught on. In sampling a three-disc set of a November 2015 show in Brazil, past and present demands collided from the onset during the show-opening Release, the closing track to Ten, which was performed with a power as elegiac as it was anthemic. Five songs later, the band plows through Mind Your Manners with a pile-driving punkishness that sounds like it could have preceded Ten. But it hails from Lightning Bolt, putting to rest any suggestion that elder status within rock ’n’ roll — be it punk, grunge, alternative or whatever term of the moment best conveys their music — doesn’t automatically yield complacency.
And that, baby, is evolution.