Rock idealists

Times Staff Writer

EDDIE VEDDER raised his sacramental wine bottle, christening Pearl Jam's first set at the Forum in eight years. "I know it's Sunday," he said, "but we have the attitude that it's Saturday night." And with that, the singer nonchalantly captured what makes the veteran Seattle band possibly the best live act rock can claim these days (watch out, Bono!). It's that mix of joyful spontaneity and routine -- of Saturday night and Sunday morning, as musicians have long said -- that creates the classic-rock experience Pearl Jam upholds and perfects.

In this tradition, forged by previous Forum headliners like the ones Vedder saluted Sunday -- the Who and Led Zeppelin -- rock frees its listeners through a carefully modulated set of highs and lows. The high is kick-started by that basic tool of group bonding, singing along. Pearl Jam gives great singalong; the feverish builds of the band's catchiest songs, from chart toppers like "Jeremy" to cult favorites like "rearviewmirror," draw people in so that they're not just gently intoning, they're shaking and jumping and testifying. During the crowd's most impassioned moments Sunday, Vedder just stood back and basked in the noise of his verses being yelled back to him. Some fans even vocalized with Mike McCready's most recognizable guitar riffs.

The uninhibited interplay of Pearl Jam's members encourages this sense of involvement. The band has had fewer hit singles than most stars of its status, in part because its sound isn't compressed and processed in a "radio-friendly" way. Instead, the songs are elaborate back-and-forths, with room for each player to add some flourish, even in compact rockers like "Life Wasted" and "Severed Hand," two set highlights from the band's most recent release, "Pearl Jam." These fully greased numbers upped everyone's energy in between more improvisational stretch-outs, carrying the audience from dreamy contemplation to boisterous release and back down again.

Good-natured rock star moves added drama. Guitarist McCready strutted and gestured like history's most cheerful metal god; rhythm section Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron focused like a couple of jocks; rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard stood there and looked cool (there's always one band member who does that); gray-maned touring keyboardist Boom Gaspar added some alpha-hippie mystique. And Vedder, who after two decades has grown out of adolescent angst and into confident idealism, danced, sweated and fell to his knees just like a soul man should.

He had a few surprises up his rumpled white shirt sleeve -- the first of which was his unabashed enthusiasm for playing the Forum. After announcing his support for striking Forum workers (and declaring that Pearl Jam booked these shows before an April lockout created a picket line), Vedder began rhapsodizing. "What's great about this room is that there's no advertising on the walls," he said. "It doesn't even say 'Coors' up there, it says beer, wine and snacks." Vedder also spoke enthusiastically about the venue's lack of skyboxes. "We're all equals here," he said delightedly.

The immediacy in the room that night, unusual for such a big venue, put the whole band in a good mood, as did the large group of friends clustered at the side of the stage. One such VIP was actor Tim Robbins, who joined Vedder for a rousing duet on an anti-Bush administration rewrite of Phil Ochs' satirical "Here's to the State of Mississippi." Another friend, present in spirit only, was Andrew Wood, the late singer for Pearl Jam's progenitor Mother Love Bone. "He would have loved to have played the Forum," Vedder said of the punky glam rocker, beginning a tender and sexy version of Wood's song "Crown of Thorns."

By the time the band made it to the Who's "Baba O'Riley," everybody present -- onstage and off -- was enjoying the fantasy of rock glamour Pearl Jam creates, one that's based on old-fashioned heart and liberation instead of girls and cars. Surrounded by friends phantom and fleshly, Pearl Jam relaxed into a display of grace that was, above all, fun.

The short but compelling set by the night's opener, the veteran New York band Sonic Youth, took a different approach. Playing in near darkness and featuring songs from its new release, "Rather Ripped," the quartet (now augmented by Mark Ibold, former bassist for Pavement) wove a net of distortion and drone enmeshed with shimmering threads of melody. Always more likely to analyze rather than immerse in classic-rock fantasies, Sonic Youth presented a different dream world -- more shadowy but just as deep.

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