Pearl Jam launches tour for 10th album, 'Lightning Bolt'

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The last time Pearl Jam set foot in Pittsburgh -- June 2006 -- the Steelers had recently beaten the band's beloved Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

"Don't hate us," singer Eddie Vedder told the crowd, "but Pittsburgh is not our favorite place on the planet."

Clearly, that offensive pass interference call in the end zone didn't help matters. On the next tour, for 2009's "Backspacer," Pearl Jam left the Steel City off the itinerary.

Four years later, the band not only opens the "Lightning Bolt" tour here, it has been in Pittsburgh all week for rehearsals. There were Pearl Jam sightings at the Pirates-Cardinals playoff game Tuesday and at the Nine Inch Nails concert Wednesday.

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam

Where: Consol Energy Center, Uptown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Tickets: Sold out.

Also: Pearl Jam Fan Pre-Party Fundraiser at Mitchell's, 304 Ross St., Downtown, at 2 p.m. Friday with food, drinks, Pearl Jam and Pittsburgh-themed raffle items, T-shirts and auction items. It's presented by Five Horizons Foundation and the The Autism Center of Pittsburgh, with proceeds going to The Olmsted Falls Early Childhood Center: www.fivehorizons.org/2013/08/pearljamfanfundraiserPittsburgh.html.

The show caps off a good year for grunge.

A pieced-together Alice in Chains and a reunited Soundgarden already played here to packed crowds yearning for a sound they can't get from younger bands.

Pearl Jam, which rose through the Seattle scene in the shadow of Nirvana, turned into a juggernaut courtesy of its pure arena-rock ambitions and the more stable leadership of Mr. Vedder.

The band has been quiet since July 2010 when it wrapped up that "Backspacer" tour. This one begins four days before the release of its 10th album, "Lightning Bolt."

"Backspacer," coming in the wake of a series of brooding albums, was considered to be Pearl Jam flashing some of its raw, rock form. "Lightning Bolt" has its quick strikes early on starting with the single, "Mind Your Manners," that takes listeners back to the fury of the "Vs." song "Spin the Black Circle."

Guitarist Mike McCready said he wrote the slashing rocker with the Dead Kennedys in mind, but the lyrics are certainly more Eddie Vedder than Jello Biafra: "I caught myself believing/that I needed God/and if it's out there somewhere/we sure could use him now ... Go to Heaven/That's swell/How do you like it/livin' Hell."

In a documentary feature that accompanies the release, Mr. Vedder said with a laugh, "If you pay attention to what's going on on the planet, I feel like I can find something to be angry about pretty quick."

The album was recorded in two sessions with more than a year's break between. It started in early 2012 when members hooked up in LA with producer Brendan O'Brien, who has now produced eight of the 10 Pearl Jam albums, going back to 1993's "Vs." They worked on six or seven songs, and then went their own ways: Mr. Vedder hit the road with a ukulele; guitarist McCready worked his side bands Walking Papers and Mad Season; Matt Cameron, Pearl's fifth drummer, went back with Soundgarden; guitarist Stone Gossard ran his studio and put out an album with the band Brad; bassist Jeff Ament did side projects with Tres Mts. (with members of King's X and the Fastbacks) and RNDM (with Joseph Arthur).

Producer O'Brien admitted to Rolling Stone in July that it was frustrating: "To be honest, I would have loved to have gotten back together sooner than a year and a half between sessions. I think it was very doable, but they're going to do what they're going to do." He added, "So their solo things are very important to them. They put a lot of energy and effort into it. My thinking is that I'm very selfish when it comes to Pearl Jam. I'm like, 'I want all your energy and your best songs for these records. That's all I care about.' The other stuff, I'm thrilled that you're doing it, but I'm very single-minded when it comes to that."

He explained that in the early days a Pearl Jam writing session often meant getting together and jamming through things. Now, they generate music off on their own and bring in pieces to finish as a band.

He said of Mr. Vedder, "To me, he's remarkably the same. When it comes to writing songs and his intensity towards his work ... He still pulls out the same typewriter from the same little brown suitcase he's been using for 20 years. It's remarkable how much he approaches it the same. I know he's a different guy since he's a family man now, a father, but all that looks the same to me."

In the documentary, Mr. Vedder gets to the source of the delay and creative process, saying, "In a way I've always thought of it as surfing a bit in that the wave is actually the song and the words are kind of like the board, so it's really how you're moving around that. Surfing is pretty easy once you're on the wave, and so is songwriting, once you're on the wave. But you can spend a lot of days out there paddling around and not getting anything."

One of the keepers on the album is the power ballad "Sirens," one of the more sentimental Pearl Jam songs you'll ever hear, one that reflects Mr. Vedder's life as a middle-aged family man. Hearing sirens in the distance, he gets a flash of his own mortality: "Oh, it's a fragile thing, this life we lead, if I think too much, I can't get over/ When by the graces, by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders."

It began as a McCready instrumental that bounced around in the singer's head before he wrote the lyrics.

"When I first heard it, I teared up a little bit," Mr. McCready said in live fan chat in Seattle last week. "It was very emotional and beautiful -- much like Eddie approaches lyrics that we can all feel. It was a very cool process that I am very grateful and proud of."

As it goes on, the record is less lightning bolt and more starry night, enough so to absorb "Sleeping By Myself," a folky song Mr. Vedder was playing on the ukulele tour that's more Wilco than Pearl Jam.

"Yellow Moon," borrowing just the title from the Neville Brothers, is a moving ballad with another emotional Vedder vocal and an uncharacteristic space-rock guitar solo.

"That was a song that was initially taken off the first mixes, but I really, really wanted it on there," Mr. McCready told Exclaim! "I just enjoyed the darkness of it, and I thought I did a pretty good lead on it. I worked hard on that; it's kind of a simple lead, but I wanted it to give the song some brightness, kind of like what David Gilmour always did with Pink Floyd."

Pittsburgh is the launching point for the tour, but the band did preview some of these new songs during that rain-delayed July show at Wrigley Field in Chicago as well as one in London, Ontario.

Asked if PJ will assemble a setlist of its vast amount of material, Mr. Vedder joked in the chat, "This year, I've been calling 1-800-SET-LIST, which is 50 cents a call. This tour, it will be interesting, because I have a bunch of new material to work on. ... In an arena, I am trying to get to the people in the back row, so I want to play the hits. But then I am also trying to gauge how open people are to experimenting with us and reach through the ether."

Although Pearl Jam is a shoe-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when its number comes up in three years, Mr. Vedder sees the band's legacy in the faces of fans.

"Watching everybody together at the shows, together at Wrigley," he said in the chat. "To me, that's the legacy part. We are in awe of that happening around the simple thing of making music. That's the wonderment."

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576; @scottmervis_pg. First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM


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