Pearl Jam, Civic Center, Asheville, NC- 10/6
I've always been puzzled about the backlash when Pearl Jam performed "Bu$hleaguer" at some of their 2003 shows, complete with lead singer Eddie Vedder decked out in a Halloween G.W. mask did people not read their tickets? It's Pearl Jam, after all, one of the most political acts to ever sell twenty million albums, a band that's been threading arch social and political commentary into their music since the halcyon days of grunge. Given the divisive atmosphere in the U.S. since the start of the war in Iraq, it would have been far more remarkable if Pearl Jam hadn't said anything. So when PJ turned up in the middle of the Vote for Change tour, accompanied by equally heavyweight acts like Bruce Springsteen, REM, and the Dave Matthews Band, it came as no big surprise. But since the tour was created to help get George W. Bush voted out of office, plain and simple, some might've worried about what would happen at a Pearl Jam show where any pretense of political neutrality was thrown by the wayside.
Ultimately, those who dreaded an evening full of pulpit-thumping with only scattered showers of music needn't have worriedthere's been more controversy at some regular Pearl Jam shows, and the Bush mask stayed locked away this time. Aside from dedicating the sorrowful "Long Road" to a local Army reserve unit awaiting deployment to Iraq and a brief rant on censorship inspired by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s fine for saying "shit" during a recent interview, Vedder and Pearl Jam were all business from the first notes of "Sometimes" through the cathartic climax of "Baba O'Riley," employing a spare stage setup no backdrops or smoke machines, limited lighting effects for a fittingly raw set of straight-ahead rock that favored the front end of the band's impressively deepening catalog and showcased the its newfound maturity, poise, and still-vibrant live power.
It wasn't that the lyrics didn't say plenty again, those with even a passing familiarity with Pearl Jam should express no genuine surprise at that. Vedder tacked the Ramonessurely one of the stoutest branches on the punk side of PJ's musical family treeon to "Daughter," but switched the lyrics of "Blitzkrieg Bop" to "hey ho, let's vote." The set's second number, "Grievance," was a snarling broadside aimed right at the current political climate, and "Do the Evolution" put and the religious plank of the GOP platform directly in its crosshairs. But many of the night's messages also tended toward stealth during the cover of Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary," the lyrics "that what you fear the most / could meet you halfway" took on a shivery new focus thanks to the link between the tour's ultimate agenda and the frequent invocation of 9/11 in the current Presidential campaign, while the refrain of "Brain of J" "the whole world will be different soon"managed to sound both threatening and hopeful at once. Of course, the latter song's rhetorical question "who's got the brain of JFK?" (and its obvious answer: no one) pulled no punches at all. That many of these songs were written well before the current President ever took office gave them an extra gravitythat Pearl Jam was somehow able to read the present from the vantage point of years past is impressive in itself and scary for what the fact may say about the state of the country.
Backed once again by the layered crunch of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard on guitar and the ballast of Jeff Ament's bass and Matt Cameron's drums (plus augmentation from keyboardist Boom Gaspar), Vedder was both candidly funny and irascible throughout. The show's few soft spots came down some slightly muddy arena sound, a dropped verse of "Do the Evolution," and McCready's unusually shapeless and choppy bridge during "Evenflow," which the guitarist simply shrugged off as a failed experiment. The 2004 version of Pearl Jam is far more confident and relaxed than the band circa 1992, with a lot less to prove to anyone, but still burning with the energy to illuminate the dark heart of songs like "Blood." Once upon a time, "Blood" was a seething song about personal expression, but tonight, when Vedder reached down to howl "it's…my…blood" again and again, a whole new message poured outblood as the stakes in war, and perhaps in the election—and anyone in the Asheville Civic Center who didn't get it just wasn't paying attention.