Pearl Jam pulling into Fenway Park for two sold-out shows was a bit of an anomaly for the “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” as the esteemed John Updike once referred to it.
This was a weekend in which a band with no discernible connections to the Hub made the proceedings feel as though it was a homecoming to a spot that it has never lived in. Its care and attention to the locale, from frontman Eddie Vedder showing off polaroid photos he had taken after sneaking into the park following an early career gig at the now departed club Axis to the celebratory cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” with Bay State guitar god J. Mascis sitting in, all spoke to a reverence for Boston rarely seen during the summer concert series.
It’s trite to say, but the band quite frankly touched all the bases… repeatedly. If Dinosaur Jr.’s loan of Mascis wasn’t enough, it also brought out Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton on Sunday to blast through his band’s classic “Draw The Line.” It played the old home week card not once but twice by first bringing out former Red Sox hurler, Bronson Arroyo, to sing on a spirited Friday night version of “Black,” and having another Sox alum, Kevin Youkilis, deliver a ukulele (cue the “Youk!” cries from a delighted crowd) both nights. Even venerable local journalist Peter Gammons came out and took a bow, and his “Foundation To Be Named Later” took a generous donation from Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy Foundation.”
The notion that a band led by a Chicago-born Seattle transplant like Vedder could so enthrall a Boston crowd might have seemed initially inconceivable but the thought with which it approached its set and setting was quite simply astounding. Of course, it also helps that it’s operating from a monster catalog of songs with a crackerjack virtuosity.
Pearl Jam delivered the standards from its debut album, Ten, with a contagious enthusiasm but also gave the hardcores such nuggets as “The Strangest Tribe,” a one-time fan club single played live for only the second time; an ode to local wiseman, Howard Zinn with “Down”; and the Little Steven cover “I Am a Patriot,” which felt particularly compelling as the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games coincided with our current political foolishness in the Presidential race.
If Vedder served as grinning host to this summer garden party, it was guitarist Mike McCready who fueled the fire. His skills are on a rare level in both the anthemic and the intimate, making him a true rock and roll rarity. The abilities of a man who can solo on his level in one moment and then lay back in the melodic maelstrom on another are sadly uncommon in today’s musical world. Of course, the reliability of as sturdy a rhythm section as drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament gives the guitars of both McCready and Stone Gossard a lot of room to move.
A connection between Pearl Jam and the Grateful Dead is not frequently made, but the comparisons upon inspection are easily found. Sell tickets directly to your fans? Check. Share recordings of your live performances? Check. Mix up your setlists, making each show a unique experience? Again, check.
Where Pearl Jam shone on this weekend, though, in a way that the Dead rarely did, was personalizing a show for the audience. Checkmate.