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Deep Emotions Mark Pearl Jam’s Return

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

“This is our last tour,” Eddie Vedder said mischievously during Pearl Jam’s long-awaited return to the Los Angeles area on Monday. “We’ve done it all. What’s left? . . . We’ve played the Forum. We ought to retire on top.”

The remark at the Great Western Forum was clearly in jest, and it led to the expected chorus of boos from the 17,500 fans who have waited six years to see America’s reigning ‘90s rock group resolve various touring issues that prevented it from playing here.

But deep inside, there is probably a part of Vedder that actually thinks the band should say goodbye to the road. You can imagine him thinking that the shows on this tour--and Monday’s spectacular, emotionally charged one in particular--are as good as it’s ever going to get for the Seattle-based quintet.

The performance Monday was, indeed, superb.

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Where Pearl Jam’s music, which helped define the anger and alienation of the grunge movement, was once somewhat one-dimensional, the songs since 1994’s “Vitalogy” album have shown increasing character, range and depth. The band’s playing too has become more fluid, with newcomer Matt Cameron fitting in perfectly on drums.

After opening on a dimly lit stage with the tender, reflective “Sometimes,” the band played the explosive, defiant “Corduroy,” the sudden brightness of the lighting matching the growing intensity of the music. It was a pairing of sharply contrasting emotions that the band repeated at several points in the show. The most striking came following “Not for You,” a tirade against the mercenary factors in the pop world, with “Wishlist,” which is as sweet and idealistic a song as can be found in ‘90s rock.

Adding to the power of the music Monday was the sense of celebration on stage. After nearly being torn apart by the pressures that accompanied selling 15 million copies of their first two albums, the members of Pearl Jam have grown closer, personally and professionally--a bonding that has added a loose, liberating edge to the concerts. You could sense it in the band’s Phoenix concert (reviewed in Saturday’s Calendar), and again at the Forum.

In rounding out the bill, the band also showed the good taste to schedule X, one of the great bands ever to come out of Los Angeles, and the good humor to schedule Tenacious D, a comedy duo that turned in a brief, but amusingly self-important acoustic set.

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For Vedder, especially, Monday’s show surely represented a personal milestone. He went to high school in the San Diego area and he presumably came up to the Forum a few times to see bands, including his all-time favorite, the Who.

Returning to the stage for a second, unscheduled encore, the band turned to “Baba O’Riley,” one of the Who’s anthems. At the end, Vedder swung his guitar high above his head and then brought it crashing to the stage--an action that Pete Townshend popularized three decades ago.

The move has become such a cliche in rock that you’d groan if anyone else did it, but it was touching that Vedder could still be so caught up in the excitement of the moment that he couldn’t resist saluting his heroes. It’s the kind of pure emotion that is at the heart of the grandest rock ‘n’ roll--a heart that keeps lifting Pearl Jam to new heights.


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