- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

When Dixie Chicks singerNatalie Maines was in the middle of her little contra-Bush cause celebre, she probably couldn’t help thinking, “Why is everybody on my case? Look at what Eddie Vedder’s doing.”

At a gig in Denver earlier this year, the lead singer of Pearl Jam reportedly took a mask of President Bush and impaled it on his microphone stand in protest against war in Iraq.

A few disgusted fans walked out, a few “shocked, shocked” articles made their way across news wires, but other than that, the hard-rock band stirred little controversy — certainly nothing close to the boycotting uproar over Miss Maines’ comment at a London performance that she was ashamed President Bush was from her home state of Texas.

That’s probably because most of Pearl Jam’s fan base either agrees with Mr. Vedder or — more likely — couldn’t care less about politics.

At Pearl Jam’s performance Tuesday night at Nissan Pavilion, Mr. Vedder kept his cranky polemics in check, save for a barely noticed dig at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

During the outro to “Daughter,” the band improvised one of the thematic mantras from Pink Floyd’s concept album “The Wall” — “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control.”

Then: “Hey, Rumsfeld, leave them kids alone.”

I don’t know which kids Mr. Vedder was referring to, but I sure hope it wasn’t the roughly 150 children freed by U.S. Marines from a Baghdad prison in April.

Mr. Vedder’s other forays into protest Tuesday came with covers of John Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth” and the Clash’s “Know Your Rights.”

They were actually much-needed breaks from a mostly tedious show that leaned too much on the band’s most recent album, last year’s “Riot Act.”

After a warm-up set by the legendary Brit-punk band the Buzzcocks, Pearl Jam opened its show with a pair of languid, low-key tunes — a new one, “Can’t Keep,” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” — and “Off He Goes,” a song off the band’s experimental “No Code” album.

Not until “Corduroy,” a bracing riff-based song from 1994’s “Vitalogy” that still pops up in FM radio rotation, did the show release any oxygen, only to suck it all up again with another pair of unremarkable new tracks, “Green Disease” and “Save You.”

The problem with Pearl Jam is that the band hasn’t written a really memorable song in almost 10 years.

After distinguishing itself from the Seattle grunge scene with an absorbing blend of ‘70s arena rock and a big helping of post-punk angst, Pearl Jam seemed like a band that would have creative legs.

Its first three albums were uniformly solid, with crafty songwriting from guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and, the group’s best weapon, Mr. Vedder, whose uniquely garbled vocal delivery has spawned a line of imitators such as Scott Stapp of Creed and Aaron Lewis of Staind.

But the band has flailed on its last four studio albums, sticking its beak into radio airplay only once in recent years, with a poky cover of J. Frank Wilson’s romantic oldie “Last Kiss” in 1999.

Of course, Pearl Jam fans — and they are legion — love the band for its anti-establishment posturing. It long ago swore off MTV videos, quixotically campaigned against Ticketmaster and, in its most fan-friendly move of all, has released heaps of live double CDs since 2000.

All facing their 40s, Pearl Jam’s members seem to be looking advancing age in the face and embracing it. All wear their hair short now, with encroaching patches of baldness proudly on display.

Fashionwise, Mr. Vedder has long been in regular-Joe mode, while Mr. Gossard, with stylish thin-framed glasses, looked as if he wandered to the Northern Virginia venue from a corporate campus on the high-tech Dulles Corridor.

Mr. McCready, sporting a pair of loud plaid golfers’ slacks, supplied most of the band’s energy, spewing fiery Hendrixian leads that, while repetitive and overlong, were a welcome contrast to the mostly inert Mr. Vedder.

The singer, who chopped at rhythm guitar for much of the evening, eventually warmed up; the best indication that Mr. Vedder was emerging from his shell was when he started hawking gobs of saliva between stanzas.

On songs from “Ten” and “Vs.,” Pearl Jam’s acclaimed debut and its even stronger sophomore album, the connection between band and audience was unbreakable.

During the hard-rocking “Even Flow” and “Why Go,” the singalong hook in “Betterman” and the spiraling ballad “Black,” the audience hung on Mr. Vedder’s every moan, howl and shriek.

But these moments were too few and scattered; like the “Test Your Strength” carnival game, the energy barometer Tuesday night would shoot up briefly and then weakly come crashing down with self-indulgent jams and unengaging material.

If only Pearl Jam weren’t so flippin’ self-important. If only it didn’t insist on taking the fun out of rock ‘n’ roll.

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