May 1, 2003
By Steve Knopper
After meandering through a series of protest speeches and guerrilla pantomimes, Eddie Vedder found his anti-war voice at the very end of Pearl Jam's three-hour American-tour opener. Not surprisingly, it involved rocking, not talking -- with a ferocious second-encore version of Neil Young's anthem "Rockin' in the Free World," which disparages the first President Bush's "kinder, gentler machine-gun hand."
Vedder was talkative, telling the crowd about a Vietnam War helicopter-pilot friend who "doesn't feel like we've evolved at all." When a fan tried to shout him down, the singer sharply responded, "Did someone just say shut up?" and gave a brief lecture on free speech. Later, during the band's 2002 political poem "Bushleaguer," Vedder danced in a George W. Bush mask, then stuck it on a mike stand and smashed it to the ground.
Those moments were interesting, but ultimately they distracted from the Seattle quintet's buzzing hard rock, as lean and tight as Vedder's new, near-crewcut hairstyle. The band was confident enough to avoid the big hits -- with brief exceptions for "Even Flow," "Corduroy" and "Daughter." A dancing, mike-stand-romancing Vedder was in fine voice, but he frequently retreated into the shadows, ceding the spotlight to Mike McCready's big-metal guitar solos.
Pearl Jam seems thrilled to focus on newer and more obscure material. Smoking a cigarette and swigging from a bottle of red wine, Vedder lingered over the "love is all you need" lyrics from the opening "Love Boat Captain" and threw himself melodramatically into countryish ballads such as "Thin Air" and Victoria Williams' "Crazy Mary."
But the band was really there to rock. Vedder can play all the electric ukeleles he wants; nothing in rock sounds quite like him channeling the Who's Roger Daltrey and Mudhoney's Mark Arm simultaneously on the anti-imperialist "Do the Evolution." It's safe to assume nobody shouted "shut up!" during that one.
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