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Pearl Jam delivers a high-energy show at Xcel Energy

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Pearl Jam almost had us going for a while there. For the first half-hour of its tour-opening concert at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center Thursday night, it looked as if the last survivors of the early ‘90s grunge scene were at last acting their age.

The Seattle quintet opened their set seated and strumming like a clutch of folkies gathered on a back porch, even the legendary high-energy frontman Eddie Vedder swiveling on his stool like a grandfather at his work bench. One thunderous rocker after another was getting the mostly acoustic treatment, the opening “Indifference” giving way to the more recent “Buckle Up.” But buckling up didn’t seem to be necessary. It looked like a mellow evening was in store.

A man sings into a microphone
Eddie Vedder performs with Pearl Jam, who played the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Aug. 31, 2023. (Courtesy of Joe Lemke)

Vedder even paused to talk of his daughters recently reintroducing him to the “MTV Unplugged” show the band recorded in 1992 and muse upon how enjoyable it might be to do something like that again.

But it was all a ruse. The volume and adrenaline gradually rose with each song before lead guitarist Mike McCready kicked his folding wooden chair aside during the fifth number and rose to launch into a soaring guitar solo on “Black” from the band’s 1991 debut album. Soon Vedder was up, then guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, and the rocking had clearly begun.

And it continued on into the night, as a mostly middle-age sellout crowd stayed on its feet and thrashed about with abandon to a consistently passionate set of music by a legendary live act that still thrills with its raucous rock. Exciting throughout, it was a set that thundered and thrashed, howled and cried, each member of the band pogoing and sprinting about as if it were 1992 all over again.

OK, Vedder doesn’t climb up light standards and toss himself into the crowd the way he did at Lollapalooza on St. Paul’s Harriet Island back then, but he stood atop the monitors at the stage’s lip and tossed his microphone stand like a javelin, leaning into the enthusiastic crowd to wail his lyrics in one of the most distinctive baritone voices rock has ever produced. Meanwhile, McCready sprinted in circles like a man half his age.

Such was the energy throughout a 20-song, 100-minute set, the crowd singing along at a volume level that often drowned out Vedder. They could be reverent and reflective on “Given to Fly,” only to erupt like a volcano on “Even Flow,” the lower bowl of the Xcel Center looking like a swarm of swirling movement as the rocking reached what could have been its peak… but kept getting increasingly intense.

Yes, there were times when the unplugged aesthetic returned, such as on another from the early ‘90s, “Daughter.” But even that became another rumbling rocker that led to a half-dozen more.

For an encore, Vedder took the stage in a solo setting, picking a 12-string acoustic guitar and paying tribute to Tom Petty with his gentle ballad, “Wildflowers.” Soon, the band joined him and turned the presentation around, delivering a lovely take on “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” to those seated behind the stage, yet having the entire audience belt out the chorus, just as they’d been doing for most of the evening.

But soon the rock returned with “Alive,” the audience reaching the evening’s consummate crescendo by howling out “I’m still alive” as if their lives depended on it.

Pearl Jam

  • With: Deep Sea Diver
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Xcel Energy Center, 199 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
  • Tickets: $161.42, available at ticketmaster.com
  • Capsule: One of the great live bands shows it’s still on top of its game.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at wordhub@yahoo.com.

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