When “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” showed up early on during Pearl Jam’s sold-out Sunday show at Fenway Park, it gave Eddie Vedder the opportunity to sing the words “I changed by not changing at all.” Two songs later, “Corduroy” found him declaring “Absolutely nothing’s changed.” If you’re looking for a mission statement for the band — which has made minor tweaks in its sound and approach since the release of debut album “Ten” but has otherwise stayed the course across a dramatically changed musical landscape in the 27 years since — you could do a lot worse.
In recent years, Pearl Jam (which plays another sold-out Fenway show Sept. 4) has become one of rock’s most reliable touring workhorses, like the similarly bootleg-friendly and trend-insulated Grateful Dead if the Dead’s material abandoned their supple exploration in favor of short, sharp kicks. Even the songs where guitarist Mike McCready was given expanded room to let loose — like a madly energetic “Even Flow,” where he picked flurries of notes behind his head — stayed tight and compact.
It also ensured that many of their songs had a headlong kick. Pearl Jam didn’t play “Why Go” and “Got Some” so much as fling them into the crowd, and Vedder spat out his words and shook off sweat on the speedy “Lukin.” The Motörhead-y “Mind Your Manners” came with dive-bomb guitar, heedless drums, and the singer leaning forward and hunkering down.
Other songs left plenty of room to breathe, from the liquid “Release” to the itchy bounce of “Tremor Christ” to the bright, shiny “Down” and beatific uplift of “Given To Fly.” “Present Tense” appeared to capture Pearl Jam’s full range all in one song. It started with a descending hack of guitar chords before Matt Cameron’s heavy kick-drum thump on the bridge telegraphed the full band jumping in to generate a flying churn that was at the same time ringing and graceful.
More than anything, Pearl Jam was smart enough not to get in its own way, right down to the stage setup. There was no extension into the audience, no backdrop (video or otherwise), no staging at all save a bunch of mirror balls that rose and dropped every now and then. The band simply got onstage and played for more than 2½ hours, bringing Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz onstage for “Taillights Fade” and playing “I Won’t Back Down” on Tom Petty’s guitar. Despite Vedder’s avowed protectiveness, the instrument made it through fine, unlike the tambourine he pounded so hard on Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” that he ended up punching right through it. Pearl Jam has itself been through worse and come out in far better shape.
At Fenway Park, Sept. 2Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.