Here’s something that doesn’t happen often in a musical climate overrun with less hearty breeds. A God’s honest arena rock band, Pearl Jam, gigging a sold-out concert in an actual arena and illustrating the ways in which a perfectly healthy beast can thrive in its natural habitat.
Appearing at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Saturday for the first of two nights in support of its heavy, confident new album, “Lightning Bolt,” the five-piece Seattle institution -- and ground zero for a brand of regional rock that came to define a generation -- piled riff atop riff across 30-plus songs, proving the durability of an ideal: that an earnest American guitar band with convictions, chops and the Marshall stacks to back it up can survive in a world rife with trendy viruses.
Singer Eddie Vedder swung from jumbo lanterns, swigged from bottles, closed songs with scissor jumps that landed on beat. Guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready traded solos, the latter showcasing his dexterity by offering Eddie Van Halen’s solo guitar gymnastics of “Eruption.” The rhythm section of Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron was locked, as always, forging, guiding, laying rails.
That Pearl Jam covered Van Halen, the Ramones (“I Believe in Miracles”) and the Who (“Baba O’Riley”) over those two-plus hours illustrated its intent. Those looking for funky midsong breakbeats, weird time signatures or trend-hopping discotheque arrangements were in the wrong part of the city.
Guitars, bass, drum and voice: the four legs of the table (with the additional decorative flourish of keyboards). Pearl Jam didn’t futz, didn’t mess with digital tones or synthesized beats. It didn’t travel to the Caribbean to experiment with dub, didn’t enlist Jon Brion or Brian Eno to make an art record.
Rather, the band built handmade grooves heavy on six strings and archetypical rock structures -- intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, coda. Not predictably so, though. With 10 studio albums in its arsenal, Pearl Jam has a catalog of songs that its members can revisit and reinvigorate and a fan base whose familiarity is impressive. Like the best live rock bands, no two sets are the same, and on Saturday, the band dipped to offer less-known tracks such as “All or None,” “Come Back” and “I Got Id,” pairing them with classic jams such as “Corduroy,” “Dissident” and “Once."
The band’s members worked like artisans: joint by joint, seam by seam -- streamlined, utilitarian and perfectly engineered. They hit hard for a few songs, then cooled down with minor key diversions such as “Sirens,” a slow-burning guitar ballad that highlighted Vedder’s manly voice.
Just as abruptly, though, Pearl Jam pushed through wind-sprint tracks like the band had discovered punk. “Spin the Black Circle” and the new “Lightning Bolt” suggest that the Melvins aren’t the only surviving Seattle alumni still able to convincingly rock. During “Do the Evolution,” Gossard, whose foundational work with longtime cohort Ament in mid-'80s Seattle in Green River was one of the first screams of the so-called grunge era, offered ample evidence of a remarkable run. The raging new “Mind Your Manners” sounded like a lost Misfits jam, one that rolled with a distorted, relentless groove.
Near the end, Vedder took one of his frequent between-song asides to note that drummer Cameron, like many of his ilk, referred to the stool upon which he banged as “a throne.” But by that point it was quite clear who ruled this arena, and it wasn’t the drummer.
Within the first 15 minutes, Vedder had singled out a woman near the front for her poor behavior -- then banished her to a lesser seat. (“We didn’t have time for a jury trial,” he joked later.) He praised the fortitude of a dude on crutches. He drank wine from the bottle and passed it around. After a heavy version of “Jeremy,” he spoke about the importance of more sensible gun laws. He thanked doctors, name-checked Bruce Springsteen, dedicated songs to Johnny Ramone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and offered another one to the band’s longtime sound technician.
As two encores extended the evening, Vedder ended up onstage slow-dancing with a flannel-shirted fan, two men connected by rock, the kind that sounds best echoing through a vast arena, minus the bull, the detritus, the unnecessary add-ons. Just a sturdy, virtually indestructible set of objects built to last.