For a show 20 years in the making, expectations were high.
Fortunately for the 12,000 fans in the crowd, Pearl Jam didn’t disappoint.
The Seattle-based band, which rocketed to stardom during the grunge era in the early ’90s and since has cemented its reputation as a remarkable live act, last played Spokane in 1993. Since then, fans have had to seek out shows at the Gorge Amphitheatre, in Seattle or Portland, or even in Missoula.
“Well, it is really happening,” lead singer Eddie Vedder told an enthusiastic crowd Saturday night at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. “We are all here in the 509.”
Vedder – hoisting a magnum of Townshend Cellars’ T3 red wine and serving it up for the devoted in the front row – then led the band through a set that can be described in so many ways. At nearly three hours, it was epic. It was loud and raucous and rocking. It ranged from moments of high comedy – such as when the fan with waist-length dreadlocks offered to shave his head to hear a song, and the band took him up on it – to deep emotion, as Pearl Jam played tribute to a friend fighting a deadly illness.
Things got started with little fanfare as Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bass player Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and keyboardist Boom Gaspar walked onto a sparsely lit stage, picked up their instruments and got to work. The band kicked off with three mid-tempo numbers, “Pendulum” and “Sirens” from their new album “Lightning Bolt,” with “Release” from debut album “Ten” sandwiched between.
The lights then came up and Pearl Jam launched into searing versions of “Corduroy,” from their third album “Vitalogy,” and “Once,” from “Ten.” When Vedder turned singing duties over to the crowd, fans proved they came ready to play.
The set roared through hits and album cuts, with a Lou Reed cover (“After Hours”) for good measure. Through it all, the band rocked and appeared to have a great time doing it. McCready showed he is one of the best rock guitarists around, attacking solos with skill and obvious glee. Ament, Cameron and Gossard kept things tight; even when the band launched into an extended jam, it sounded so good. So right.
The set ended on a riotous note, with “Jeremy” followed by “Do the Evolution” and finally “Porch.” After a short break, Vedder returned to introduce the creator of the night’s set list, Steve Gleason. The longtime Pearl Jam fan is a Spokane native and former pro football player who is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In an emotionally charged moment, the cameras found Gleason and his wife in the crowd as Vedder launched into a solo version of Tom Petty’s hit “Won’t Back Down.” It was a powerful scene and the crowd sang along and erupted when the song was over.
Gossard took a rare turn at the mic to sing lead on “Don’t Gimme No Lip” before things took a funny turn. The guy who promised to shed his dreads if the band played “Brain of J”? Vedder called him up and the band played his song, giving him a final chance to head-bang in full glory. Vedder, wielding a pair of clippers that didn’t look up to the task, gave the guy his first haircut in what had to have been more than a decade.
The nine-song encore ended with a powerful “Rearviewmirror,” and after a short break, the band was back for more. A lovely version of “Given to Fly” gave way to a double-dose of Van Halen, with covers of “Eruption” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” The house lights came up during “Alive,” but that didn’t stop the party. Pearl Jam launched into “Yellow Ledbetter,” with McCready playing his part seated next to Gleason, whose face beamed.
When it was done, there were smiles all around as exhausted and exhilarated fans filed out not too long before midnight
“We’ll see you next year,” Vedder promised as the night ended. “This was great.”
Spokane is bound to hold him to that.