It's been a year since Pearl Jam released Lightning Bolt, and the Seattle grunge gods chose to squeeze one more festival into the twelve months they've spent touring internationally behind their tenth record with a comfortable, intimate and immensely satisfying set at Austin City Limits Festival.
This isn't to say Pearl Jam's ACL Fest set was predictable or stale by any stretch. As anyone who's seen Pearl Jam live can attest, the terms "dad rock" or "tired" can't be thrown their way at all. After 20 years of climbing light rigs, hurling guitars and screaming into microphones until they're on the verge of giving themselves tinnitus with their own voices, Pearl Jam are very much on top of their game. They throw now-perfected covers into the mix while handing over "Jeremy" to a dedicated fan base that rivals Eddie Vedder on his delivery and intensity. Vedder's been playing "Imagine" out lately, and the solemn, acoustic take on John Lennon's classic was a welcome contrast to the rugged, roaring frontman we've come to know as the Gospel of Grunge.
That directness didn't waver when Vedder went off the mark a bit, indulging in his typical bottle of wine and riffing on everything from John Lennon's motivation to write "Imagine" to a woman's right to choose. Early on, a heartfelt toast to another iconic rock act on the ACL Fest bill, The Replacements, was met with "awwwww"-es aplenty, and the feel of the evening wasn't unlike the kind you encounter in a living room full of friends and family after grandma's gotten into the gin.
The whole set was a demonstration in striking a balance between hard, soft, loud, quiet and every other paradoxical variable that could make its way into a chord progression. Vedder has always been politically present, and he peppered his sets with commentary about current events at home and abroad. His reminders to register to vote and work to save the world were as constant and as warm as his silly, affectionate barbs thrown at the audience. (At one point, Vedder shouted out Austin's Chief of Police because he heard somewhere that the officer was a huge PJ fan.)
These brief spats of banter fell between intense shredding and exceptional solos from Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, who owned a turned-up version of Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World" shortly before they walked offstage. "Even Flow" could've reverberated all the way to Oklahoma, and according to Vedder, it was likely played during one of the band's first sets at Austin's Back Room back when they were cutting their teeth and everything they wore was flannel.
Though they've got new(ish) songs they're still actively promoting, Pearl Jam succeeded in bridging gaps between the image of their '90s selves and the older, wiser dudes helming the stage and destroying it over the course of two hours. The only set to run a little long at ACL Fest, Pearl Jam clearly couldn't unplug until they were absolutely ready to do so, and it didn't seem like the crowds were eager to dissipate as they marinated in Vedder's trademark growl while waiting to see if he'd accidentally bash his face in from throwing his ax in the air mid-song.
Pearl Jam are wrapping their touring up, and ACL Fest was a fantastic reminder that a band married to a particular place, time and genre (Seattle, '90s, grunge) can break free of that while setting their sights on the next arena-shaking riff.
Check out all of Fuse's on-the-ground coverage from Austin City Limits Festival 2014 here, including our list of the weekend's best moments.