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From left, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, Eddie Vedder, and Jeff Ament at the Toronto International Film Festival for the screening of documentary Pearl Jam Twenty. Mark Blinch / Reuters
From left, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, Eddie Vedder, and Jeff Ament at the Toronto International Film Festival for the screening of documentary Pearl Jam Twenty. Mark Blinch / Reuters

Pearl Jam musicians mark a milestone with flair

With a documentary, live album and photo book, the band celebrates 20 years of rock success.

Eddie Vedder summons all his strength, throws back his head and booms his gravelly baritone across the cavernous concrete arena. In an instant, 20,000 fans roar his words back to him.

It is September 11, the 10th anniversary, a day of flag-waving and sombre media commentary. But somehow the Pearl Jam singer resists the temptation for emotional grandstanding or political point-scoring. Instead, he is standing onstage in Toronto, looking even further back, to the band’s roots in the Seattle grunge explosion 20 years ago. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” Vedder smiles wistfully. “And having kids.”

Sporting a wispy beard and lumberjack shirt, the 46-year-old singer has brought his band to Canada for the launch of a new career-spanning documentary, live album and photo book. Due this week, the offerings are all called Pearl Jam Twenty. Family and friends are gathered in the audience, along with the film’s director, Cameron Crowe. Just hours after the gala premiere, Pearl Jam kick off a coast-to-coast tour with the first of two shows at Toronto’s massive Air Canada Centre: a typically no-frills, high-energy marathon rooted in their unabashed love of classic 1960s and 1970s guitar rock.

Vedder and his band always had more reverence for rock history than their more bratty, punky Seattle contemporaries. Once routinely levelled as a criticism, this wider perspective has proved to be an asset as fickle pop fashions fade. With so many of their former alt-rock peers destroyed by drugs, feuds and untimely deaths, Pearl Jam are virtually the last band standing from that volatile grunge era.

Packed with excellent archive footage and recent interviews, Crowe’s film is broadly positive and celebratory, as we might expect from a long-time friend of the band. But Pearl Jam Twenty also proves their 20-year ride has been bumpy at times. In 1996, a mentally unbalanced stalker almost killed herself by ramming her car into Vedder’s front wall. Soon afterwards, the band suffered a humiliating defeat in their noble but ultimately doomed fight against the giant bookings agency Ticketmaster.

But Pearl Jam’s lowest point came at Denmark’s Roskilde festival in 2000, when nine fans died in a crowd crush during their performance. Initially blamed for the tragedy, then exonerated, the band retired from festivals for six years and even considered breaking up. In such troubled times, Vedder reveals, friendly father figures like Neil Young and Pete Townshend offered a vital helping hand.

“When we didn’t know how to get through, when it was hard to talk to each other, some of these people gave us advice on things that you can’t teach,” Vedder tells me at the film’s press launch. “All these groups, for some reason, we’re grateful that they saw something in us and recognised that we might need a little help. And that we were worth helping.”

A former rock journalist turned filmmaker, Crowe is best known for glossy Hollywood movies including the Tom Cruise blockbusters Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky. But unlike the conflicted young hero of his semi-autobiographical memoir Almost Famous, the director insists he never felt any ethical tensions in making a documentary about his friends.

“Knowing them, and having lived in the community with them for long periods, I think I was able to hold a mirror up and show them how they looked to me,” he says.

Crowe claims Pearl Jam’s story is as engrossing as any Hollywood blockbuster. His film certainly opens dramatically with the early death of Andrew Wood, the flamboyant singer with pre-grunge Seattle rockers Mother Love Bone. From this tragedy, Pearl Jam was born.

“The story of Pearl Jam is beyond just a rock story,” Crowe nods. “In fact, it takes the usual rock story and turns it on its head. The usual rock story is: incredible promise, brilliance maybe, then tragedy cuts it short. Pearl Jam is exactly the opposite, it was a tragedy that was surmounted. These guys found joy through survival.”

Grunge historians often cast Pearl Jam and Nirvana as rivals, with Vedder as Salieri to Kurt Cobain’s Mozart. In fact, any inter-band friction was largely a media invention, and the two singers were on mostly friendly terms. Cobain appears only briefly in Crowe’s film, praising Vedder as a nice guy and, in a remarkable piece of amateur footage, dancing with him at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

“The first time I saw that footage it was incredibly emotional,” Vedder says. “You just think, he could have pulled through.”

Crowe agrees: “It’s so powerful, such a human moment,” he says. “It is what happens outside the spotlight. They were really in a blender of media explosiveness at that time, but here was this moment where Kurt and Eddie got to be alone and express themselves as people.”

Onstage in Toronto, Pearl Jam play a typically sprawling, 27-song, two-hours-plus set spanning their entire career. Although their brand of rootsy authenticity can feel a little monochromatic on record, it makes perfect sense in this rousing, emotionally charged, communal setting. This is their forte: intimacy on an epic scale. On rich, muscular, country-rock numbers such as Daughter and Nothing As It Seems, they also dig deep into a vital tradition of storytelling Americana that reaches back through REM, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash to the literary heartland of Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck.

During almost 40 minutes of encores, Vedder shares vocal duties with the singalong crowd on a muscular Better Man and a swooping, shuddering Alive. But Pearl Jam save the real heavy artillery for the final number, when local hero and rock legend Neil Young joins them onstage for an ear-bashing chug through his own evergreen classic, Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World. Looking lean and lanky in a battered leather jacket, Young whips up a howling typhoon of criss-crossing guitars as Vedder shouts and claps along – still the ultimate fan, sharing a stage with his musical hero.

As Pearl Jam Twenty demonstrates, the band’s first two decades has been a roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy, soaring peaks and crushing lows. But Vedder claims the Seattle veterans have reached a “higher plane” of mutual respect and communication as they mellow into middle age. Now family men in their 40s, they are fully in control of their careers and making plans for another 20 years together.

“We just want to keep doing it,” Vedder shrugs. “Just to keep getting better, and maybe to push the boundaries of music, too. I don’t see it stopping. I don’t think any of us see it stopping.”

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