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The last time Pearl Jam played at Bonnaroo, they wowed the 2008 attendees with a epic, career-spanning set that blazed for three hours — which famously drew ire from late night performer, Kanye West. The rapper blamed Pearl Jam’s extra hour of jamming for why his own set started, um, five hours after his assigned slot. Given how notorious that show is in the fest’s history, the question on everyones’ minds when it was announced the group would return in 2016 was whether Eddie Vedder and Co. possibly top their previous outing.
Saturday evening sessions got off to a bumpy start when the weather forced organizers to suspend shows for one hour, pushing the group’s start time to 11:30 p.m., the latest headlining slot of the festival. “Are we keeping you up past your bedtime?” Vedder welcomed the crowd once he and his band boarded the stage. If that was even a fleeting concern, it evaporated with the first lick of the set opener, their fiery 1993 single “Go.” For the next two hours, they ripped through a murderers’ row of favorites from their 26 year career, including “Given To Fly,” “Better Man,” and “Alive.”
And while the entire Pearl Jam canon is generally fair game for live shows, the band leaned heavily on their 1991 debut, Ten, here, working through “Even Flow,” “Jeremy,” “Porch,” and “Black.” But those weren’t the only well-worn numbers they dusted off — Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Arms Aloft” (which the group also recorded for 2011’s Live on Ten Legs), Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In A Free World” were all covered.
Given the setlist, the show could have easily felt like a legacy act. But Vedder, along with lead guitarist Mike McCready, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, drummer Matt Cameron, and bassist Jeff Ament wouldn’t allow it, playing with a fervor, and at times, a fury, that didn’t let up until the last note rang out. Old favorites, particularly “Even Flow” and “Jeremy,” benefitted especially: Where they used to sneer, now they full-on snarl.
Vedder has never shied away from sharing his political beliefs, and Saturday night was no different. After “Nothingman,” the singer offered commentary on a certain presidential hopeful. “There’s some candidate out there talking about building a giant wall,” he said, avoiding direct mention of Donald Trump. “Maybe we could just build a wall around him.” He added, “I’d pay for it … I’d like a little cinder block window in there so we could all just walk up to it once in a while and [raising his middle finger] just do this!” The following song the band played was similarly unsubtle: 2013’s “Mind Your Manners,” on which Vedder rails against intolerance.
Later, he read a handwritten note to Tennessee State Representative Susan Lynn aloud, urging her to reverse her supportive stance on passing the same anti-LGBT legislation as North Carolina — which Pearl Jam protested by cancelling their tour stop in the state. As is always the case during such moments, some fans cheered, some heckled, some didn’t notice, and some headed straight for the bar.
Not all non-musical moments were as amped-up. A particularly tender one came in the second half when Vedder asked the crowd to hold up their lighters — or, more realistically, iPhones — to give his 12-year-old daughter Olivia a sea of candles to blow out while he sang her “Happy Birthday.” He was as enthusiastic during it as any of his other tunes and quickly the masses joined in.
Vedder ended the night by first igniting a crowd-wide fist-pumping session during their heart-swollen anthem “Alive” and then launching into their tried and true rendition of Young’s classic. As the final notes cleared, the boom of fireworks filling the Tennessee sky replaced the silence, and it felt like it was a celebration for both band and fans alike.
“Given to Fly”
“Mind Your Manners”
“Arms Aloft” (Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros cover)
“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”
“Comfortably Numb” (Pink Floyd cover)
“Do the Evolution”
“Rockin’ in the Free World” (Neil Young cover)