It's easy to become blasé about world-class acts playing small, sweaty gigs, but Pearl Jam's first London appearance in six years, to herald the release of their eighth studio album, topped concerts by The Rolling Stones and U2 in the same 1,600-capacity venue. Wearing a Plasmatics T-shirt, the band's front man, Eddie Vedder, seems genuinely taken aback by the warmth of the reception throughout the long set.
Blasting into the mean, tight, punky riff of "World Wide Suicide" and the urgent, edgy "Life Wasted", Pearl Jam sound as though they've never been away and remain as vital and relevant as when they first played the UK in 1992. The guitarist, Mike McReady, is a veritable livewire, darting all over his side of the stage while the ace drummer, Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden, and the bassist, Jeff Ament, anchor the group's swirling sound. With its Who-like intro and cyclical chorus, "Severed Hand" fits Vedder's trademark gesture as his right arm cuts and slices across his left.
The singer never wanted to become spokesman of the grunge generation but, with his beard and long hair, he can't help cutting a messianic figure as "Even Flow", from their Ten album, which outsold Nirvana's Nevermind in 1992, has the whole place singing. Pearl Jam's angsty, brooding debut defined the Seattle scene as much as Kurt Cobain's group, but Vedder and co survived the pressures, diversifying into side projects (Brad, Mad Season) and collaborating with Neil Young on Mirror Ball, while keeping a steady release of studio albums and official live bootlegs.
"Army Reserve", another new track, works even better live, with its insistent groove and a lyrical guitar flourish worthy of Jimmy Page. Vedder even cracks a joke about his "private reserve" while swigging from a bottle of red wine and laughs out loud when he loses his spot for a split second after an extended and umprompted singalong into "Better Man".
Audience and band are becoming one in a manner reminiscent of Vedder's heroes The Who in the early Seventies and, fittingly, the singer dedicates "Man of the Hour", first song of the first encore, to The Who's guitarist, Pete Townshend. When a Scot in a kilt flashes at Vedder, the front man quips that he now knows "what to write about in the postcards home".
In the internet age, this is an endearing admission from a group who may be steeped in rock's finest traditions but keep moving forward while sticking to their beliefs. They mess up the intro to "Comatose" and follow this spunky burst with a barnstorming version of "Leaving Here".
A minor Motown hit in the US for Eddie Holland and a Mod favourite in the Sixties, this track has also been covered by Motörhead and fits the garage-rock spirit of the second encore, which concludes with "Yellow Ledbetter", complete with a snatch of Led Zeppelin's "Nobody's Fault but Mine", since Robert Plant is in the balcony.
They salute, and the second guitarist, Stone Gossard, begins walking off but is beckoned back by Vedder for a final "Alive", during which the singer twirls the mic-lead around his body à la Roger Daltrey while McReady plays guitar behind his head like Jimi Hendrix. The future of rock is in safe hands.
Pearl Jam play the Reading/ Leeds festival, 27 & 25 AugustReuse content