Neither a lightning storm evacuation nor dark of night could keep Pearl Jam from mightily rocking the Bonnaroo 2016 mainstage until almost 2am. After all, they are pros at such things (do yourself a favor and Google their 2013 Wrigley Field show). The witching hour was almost upon ‘Roo when the veteran Seattle band took the stage after the bad weather passed, frontman Eddie Vedder joked about keeping us campers up past our bedtime, and then the guys roared into 1993’s ferocious “Go.”
The Pearl Jam tractor beam of energy switched on as the frenzied blur that is lead guitarist Mike McCready started peeling off riffs (while doing laps around his bandmates, playing solos behind his head and roaming into the crowd).
Sleep was the furthest thing from anyone's mind, and old favorites flew at high-velocity. “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” “Alive,” “Black” (with producer Brendan O’Brien on keys), and then comes the realization that they're playing most their of 1991 debut sprinkled among later classics (“Better Man”), apt recent fare (“Lightning Bolt”) and covers from the masters (Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World,” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”). Vedder prowled at the mic (or was out into the crowd), that unmistakable baritone was enormous, washing over the huge Tennessee field when the tens-of-thousands-strong singalongs began (“Elderly Woman” et al.).
But this two-hour setlist, which the band carefully put together for the night, wasn’t just a collection of songs. Pearl Jam's played here before (in 2008), so they are right at home, and Vedder had a few things to say — he’s never been shy about that — and the tunes that follow each speech drive his points home.
“One of the candidates wants to build a wall” that’s “insulting to millions of humans” he says early on, referencing Donald Trump without actually saying his name. With a sly grin, Vedder offers to build that wall around the candidate himself, with a little window so we can all walk by and give him the finger. When the music kicks back in, it’s 2013’s furious “Mind Your Manners.”
Later, Eddie’s respectfully asked Rep. Susan Lynne not to revive attempts at a descriminatory Tennessee bathroom bill that would force transgender people to use the restroom corresponding to their gender at birth. Soon guitarist Stone Gossard was strumming the opening of “Daughter,” which somehow took on new depth all these years later in this context (“Don’t call me daughter.”)
There are also moments of outright tenderness. Proud dad Vedder asks the crowd to sing happy birthday to his oldest daughter, Olivia, who is turning 12. And the Bonnaroo crowd is happy to pretend their iPhone flashlights are the candles she needs to blow out.
A workout, a party, a consideration of modern society, a communal rock and roll gathering on a Tennessee farm—Pearl Jam delivered it all at Bonnaroo. And yes, the fireworks were both literal and musical. I dare you to try to sleep after that.