By John Benson
For more than 20 years, Pearl Jam has been a band that has flown under the mainstream radar.
Sure, there are platinum records and hit singles on its resume, but the group doesn’t garner the same publicity as other acts with such longevity. Yet confirmation of Pearl Jam’s underestimated popularity came this past summer when the band sold out Wrigley Field in Chicago in record time.
Just think about that for a second. The iconic Windy City baseball stadium hosted shows in recent years by Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen, yet it was the ’90s alternative act that had the quickest sellout.
The July show would test the band’s fan base. The triumphant gig was supposedly going to include a 40-plus song set list but Mother Nature had other plans with a 21/2 hour rain delay roughly 60 minutes into the band’s show.
As fans hid in the tunnels of Wrigley, drinking beer vendors dry, there were rumors of cancellation and rescheduling. However, once the rain stopped, the group surprisingly returned to the stage. The only problem — it was midnight.
For most shows, such a delay would result in many concertgoers packing it in. However, this concert was different. No one left. The venue remained packed with fans who would see one of the greatest Pearl Jam shows to date. Highlights ranged from obscure tracks (“Bugs”) and covers (Pink Floyd’s “Mother” and Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns”) to fan favorites (“Porch” and “Rearviewmirror”) and hits (“Black” and “Evenflow”).
The night wasn’t just a trip down memory lane but also a look forward to the group’s 10th studio effort, “Lightning Bolt” (due out next week) with new songs such as the title track, “Mind Your Manners” and “Future Days.”
The song set, which included an appearance by Mr. Cub Ernie Banks, ended in surreal fashion at 2 a.m. with a rousing version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
In some ways, the rain delay epitomized Pearl Jam’s quarter of a century against-the-odds existence. Early on, the rock act was high profile, lumped into the Seattle grunge scene, which by the mid-’90s started to crack with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Soundgarden’s breakup and Alice in Chains’ demise due to singer Layne Staley’s drug addiction.
Then Pearl Jam found itself in uncomfortable situations persevering through a series of drummers — from Dave Abbruzzese to Jack Irons and then finally sticking with Soundgardens’ Matt Cameron — as well as a high-profile battle against Ticketmaster and a political firestorm (remember the President George W. Bush mask?).
After essentially eschewing the record industry marketing game by refusing to make a music video for the better half of the ’90s, Pearl Jam spent its first decade existing in the shadows and purging its fan base of zeitgeist fans. Even though the group’s record sales diminished from multi- platinum to gold-selling efforts, those who bought the music more than likely also were going to see the band live, which is why Pearl Jam has remained an arena touring act.
So while some casual music followers may be surprised to hear Pearl Jam is playing another sold-out show Friday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, die-hard fans know their favorite group is, well, still alive with a lightning bolt in its pocket.