Concert review: Pearl Jam at Wrigley Field

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Pearl Jam’s next album is entitled “Lightning Bolt,” which proved prophetic Friday at Wrigley Field as the band and its fans endured a 2 ½-hour rain delay. Sandwiched around the evacuation of the stage and infield, the Seattle quintet delivered a typically overstuffed 32-song, three-hour set.

Ernie Banks likes to say ‘Let’s play two,’ ” singer Eddie Vedder said as he re-emerged just before midnight after the lengthy delay. “I say, ‘Let’s play until two.’”

He then produced Banks himself, and Vedder and the Cubs Hall of Famer sang a chorus of the singer’s diehard Cubs anthem, “All the Way.”

“I appreciate all of you coming to my house tonight,” Banks said.

Then Vedder and his bandmates made good on his promise – Pearl Jam did indeed play until 2 a.m., far past the Wrigley curfew of 11 p.m.

The concert began in mugginess, with the kind of slow build typical of Pearl Jam’s longer concerts. Dressed in black, Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron entered with the simmering “Release” and some deep-album tracks, then the wistful “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” Whispers were exchanged on stage shortly after 9 p.m., and pretty soon Vedder was telling the fans on the infield to move toward the grandstand to find shelter from the oncoming storm. The evacuation was orderly, the wait interminable. Within 30 minutes, the weather system had washed out the last half of the headlining set by Bjork at Union Park and the second half of Phish’s concert at Northerly Island a few miles to the south of Wrigley.

The storm wasn’t nearly as severe when it reached the ballpark, but the concert didn’t resume until officials were convinced that the threatening weather system had dissipated. Once things got started again, all the pent-up energy came crashing through on “Do the Evolution,” with a deranged Gossard guitar solo; a ferocious “Corduroy,” with  McCready closing down an extended conversation among the three guitarists; and a sprint through “Rearviewmirror,” with Cameron delivering drum volleys worthy of Keith Moon.

The band dug out as many connoisseur’s cuts from its catalogue as it did hits. In some ways, Pearl Jam has become the alternative-rock era’s answer to the Grateful Dead, with its ever-morphing set lists and stadium-level following, even as the band has drastically slowed its output of studio recordings. Little wonder its sets are sometimes a bumpy -- if usually rewarding -- ride.

A few quibbles and observations about this one: A McCready solo is the band’s fallback position during its weaker moments. Whenever a song falters or doesn’t quite have enough juice to reach the finish line, the ball gets tossed to the wiry, mohawked guitarist – as during the title track from “Lightning Bolt” and the pedestrian “Even Flow.” Vedder also tested his fans’ goodwill by pulling out an accordion for the perverse “Bugs.” At least he left the ukuleles back stage.

Except for those missteps, Pearl Jam lived up to the sense of occasion that goes with one of Vedder’s hometown shows inside one of the city’s prized pieces of real estate. The singer is a longtime and therefore long-suffering Cubs fan, and he reminisced about “the corridor of light” when he first climbed the stairs to see Wrigley Field as a boy. He was in terrific voice, his baritone rich and resonant – never more so than on a staggering cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother.” Accompanied by Gossard’s acoustic guitar, Vedder brought bite to certain phrases, poignance to others, and made the classic-rock standard sound surprisingly fresh.

Another distinctive touch was a cover of “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” by Mother Love Bone, a 1980s Seattle band that included future Pearl Jam members Gossard and Ament. Somehow Pearl Jam evoked the fragility and snakiness of the original – and its defining performance by the late singer Andrew Wood – in its own brawnier language.

By the time a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” closed the show, it was also nearly closing time at the Wrigleyville bars. Yet the park as well as the surrounding rooftops were still full of celebrating fans.

“We’d like to play here every summer,” Vedder said. Even if they do, it’s doubtful the band and its fans will have a night as long and strange as this one. 

greg@gregkot.com

Pearl Jam set list Friday at Wrigley Field:

1. Release

2. Nothingman

3. Present Tense

4. Hold On

5. Low Light

6. Come Back  

7. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town

Rain delay

8. All the Way 

9. All Night

10. Do the Evolution

11. Setting Forth

12. Corduroy

13. Faithfull 

14. Mind Your Manners

15. Lightning Bolt

16. State of Love and Trust

17. Wishlist

18. Even Flow

19. Leatherman

20. Mike McCready solo: Eruption (Van Halen)

21. Bugs

22. Why Go

23. Unthought Known

24. Rearviewmirror

Encore

25. Future Days

26. Mother (Pink Floyd)

27. Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns (Mother Love Bone)

28. Porch 

29. Wasted Reprise

30. Life Wasted

31. Black

32. Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young)

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The Grammys 2011