Friday night at Fenway Park, midway through the latest in a string of unpredictable, epic-length concerts with which Pearl Jam has been regaling its American fans this year, frontman Eddie Vedder grabbed a moment to share some old Polaroid photos. Blown up on screens flanking the stage, the snaps mostly showed images of sweaty audience members at tiny nightclubs the band had played in its earliest years. Two, though, were old shots of Fenway Park — which, Vedder confided, he’d taken after climbing a fence to sneak into the park.
It was a meaningful gesture of solidarity from the durable Seattle band toward a city, Vedder said, that had embraced Pearl Jam from the start. And not the only one: During a show that stretched well past the three-hour mark, Pearl Jam dedicated “Faithfull” to David Ortiz and “Down” to Howard Zinn, and he brought out former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo to sing and play guitar on “Black.” A request from Vedder for a ukulele offered pretext for a Kevin Youkilis cameo. Even the veteran sportswriter Peter Gammons got an onstage bow.
Vedder’s only misstep all night, it seemed, was mentioning in passing his love for the Chicago Cubs, for which the Fenway audience let him have it. “You ought to be more nice to your fellow sufferers,” Vedder protested. Emerging later from a plunge into the audience, he suddenly sported a Red Sox cap, which he promised to wear “next time I’m at Wrigley.” His chance will come soon enough; after a Fenway repeat on Sunday night, Pearl Jam wraps up its current tour at Wrigley Field Aug. 20 and 22.
Yes, there was music, too. A great deal of it, passionately dispatched and superbly paced, an oceanic surge of huge hits and deep cuts, sturdy originals and offbeat covers, folksy rumination and punk-fueled roil.
Around a consistently energized Vedder, the other Pearl Jam members — the guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, the bassist Jeff Ament, and the drummer Matt Cameron, joined by Boom Gaspar, a keyboardist more clearly seen than heard here — performed with comparative reserve. That’s not to suggest anything but total commitment: The players know their jobs and how to do them, the result being a near-ceaseless ebb and flow executed at an extraordinarily high level.
Like the Grateful Dead and their jam-band progeny, Pearl Jam seems to have a full career’s worth of music instantly accessible; like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Vedder & Co. know how to fashion a set that crests to exhilarating peaks, backs off, and then builds up again, and again. With a show so consistently fine that picking highlights seems pointless — which won’t keep me from citing the slow-burn start (“Release,” “Long Road,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”); the fierce surge soon after (“Given to Fly,” “Mind Your Manners,” “Why Go”); a punchy one-two combo of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Little Steven’s “I Am a Patriot”; and the spot-on encore cover of Aerosmith’s “Draw the Line” — Pearl Jam demonstrated anew why it has earned a place among that elite company.
At Fenway Park, Aug. 5Steve Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.