It was only two years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. Seattle had been abuzz for two weeks by the time Pearl Jam took the stage at what was then Safeco Field for the first of two shows in a stadium rock doubleheader raising millions for organizations working with people experiencing homelessness.
“About 28 years ago, we played not too far down the street,” a nostalgic Eddie Vedder told the ballpark crowd, easing into a colossal three-hour concert. “Our first show was maybe seven or eight songs and back then it took maybe 30 minutes to cover all the issues. But now we live in a much more complex time. It’s gonna take a lot more than 30 minutes to cover all of the aspects of modern-day life.”
That inaugural show took place 30 years ago Thursday at the old Off Ramp, now punk/metal den El Corazon — one of South Lake Union’s last vestiges of grit (at least for now). The hometown heroes mark the anniversary with a wider release of its “MTV Unplugged” concert and a pay-per-view webcast of a 2016 Philadelphia show where they played “Ten” in its entirety. The club where a new-in-town Vedder debuted with the band rising from Mother Love Bone’s ashes is just a few miles from Pearl Jam’s center-field stage during those 2018 Home Shows. But Pearl Jam’s journey from local club act to an enduring arena filler was even more of a marathon than one of the Seattle juggernauts’ famously lengthy sets.
In 1990, a young Mookie Blaylock — as Pearl Jam was still known the night of that first gig — was one band among a close-knit battalion of Seattle club rockers that would unexpectedly shape ’90s pop culture. Their peer group’s a little different these days.
As an active 30-year-old rock band capable of playing stadiums (when such things are allowed), Pearl Jam is in rare company with some of the classic rock deities who influenced them like The Rolling Stones and Vedder’s hero-pals in The Who, whose “maximum R&B” is a foundational block Pearl Jam continues to build upon. Around their 30-year marks, the Stones were laying up their forgettable “Voodoo Lounge” album and fielding questions about whether they still had it as a touring band (spoiler alert: they did and still do). Meanwhile, The Who was limited to one-off reunions amid a 24-year album-less gap.
Pearl Jam crosses that 30-year threshold with more momentum. This year PJ broke a seven-year album drought of their own, sounding recharged and at times restless on “Gigaton,” their 11th studio album. It’s generally a win if so-called legacy bands’ late-career albums produce a few tunes worth cracking the set list on tours that will sell tickets whether they have a new record or not. But with their best album this century, a still-hungry Pearl Jam showed they can successfully push themselves while continuing to mine the ’70s rock influences they’ve long embraced — a welcome exhibition after sticking to their comfort zone in 2013’s “Lightning Bolt.” And while Vedder might not hurl himself into the crowd like he once did, no one’s questioning whether PJ’s live show is up to snuff.
While “Gigaton” themes like existential dread and hope felt incredibly on the nose for 2020, a Pearl Jam album’s success hasn’t needed relevance to anything else happening in pop music since the grunge boom exposed Vedder’s disdain for getting “swallowed up by the mainstream,” as the singer put it in “Pearl Jam Twenty,” the Cameron Crowe-directed doc commemorating PJ’s 20th anniversary. (Still, curveball “Gigaton” single “Dance of the Clairvoyants” never feels out of place on KEXP’s indie-centric airwaves among the likes of art-pop visionary Lido Pimienta and modern post-punk darlings Idles, a Jeff Ament favorite.)
As the mainstream winds shifted, Pearl Jam effectively built their own sustainable ecosystem, nurturing a dedicated fan base that’s largely north of 40 and frequently travels for PJ’s lengthy concerts, with set lists varying nightly. Those jam-scene ethos that helped the Grateful Dead earn its cult following are rare in the hard-rock world and have been central to the band’s post-grunge legacy.
Of Pearl Jam’s ’90s alt-rock brethren still commanding arena-sized crowds, Radiohead took an alternate route. Whereas Pearl Jam proudly embraced and celebrated rock ‘n’ roll heritage, Radiohead dismantled it, undergoing a digital reconstruction that was ahead of its time and redefined what a rock band could be. While Radiohead hasn’t totally escaped the “dad rock” charges thrown at guitar-wielding Gen X heroes, the Brits have maintained enough relevance with younger audiences to headline Coachella in 2017 without anyone batting an eyelash. It’s harder to picture Travis Scott fans in throwback NBA jerseys sprinting across the field to watch Mike McCready channel Jimmy Page with sky-bound guitar solos, and that’s probably best for all parties.
But in essence, both bands achieved similar longevity by doing whatever the hell they wanted, a lesson Pearl Jam gleaned from its time on the road with folk-rock maverick Neil Young — or “Uncle Neil,” as Vedder affectionately calls the “godfather of grunge.”
Here in their hometown, Pearl Jam’s members have in some ways filled an avuncular role in the local music community, as has fellow ’90s star Sir Mix-A-Lot, with a seen-it-all credibility and a penchant for shining their spotlight on myriad causes over the years. McCready, in particular, has championed a number of younger artists and put out 7-inches from Seattle rockers like Thunderpussy and The Black Tones through his HockeyTalkter label. Similarly, Stone Gossard is firing up his dormant Loosegroove Records again, with plans to release music from local R&B/soul artists Tiffany Wilson and Brittany Davis, who plays in Gossard’s latest side project Painted Shield.
While its legacy is secure, Pearl Jam’s story is still being written. It could be a while before they’re allowed to fill another Seattle sports complex. But who knows, at this rate, the enduring and endearing rockers will probably outlast the next new arena, too.