The long, strange story of how obsessive fans turned Pearl Jam into the new Grateful Dead.

On a balmy September afternoon at Washington State’s Gorge Amphitheatre, tailgaters mill around on a lawn overlooking the Columbia River. As tonight’s headliner warms up inside the venue, concert bootlegs blast out of cars, and a woman writes ”100” on her arm in celebration of the number of times she’s seen the band live. Old friends reunite, Hacky Sacks fly, and the occasional puff of something other than tobacco floats through the air. But despite all appearances, this is not a Grateful Dead show. It’s a Pearl Jam concert. America, meet the Jamily.

Admit it: You sort of thought Pearl Jam broke up. After 1998’s Yield, the onetime alt-rock superstars slowly faded from public view, releasing two lackluster studio discs 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act — that sold poorly compared with the band’s early successes. But even as their mainstream profile diminished, Pearl Jam were quietly developing a fanatical cult following. The band now packs arenas for two, sometimes three nights in a row, thanks to thousands of intensely dedicated fans who call themselves the Jamily and travel hundreds of miles to sing along with every word. Sixteen years into their career, Pearl Jam have unexpectedly morphed into a modern Grateful Dead, and it just might be their saving grace. ”You don’t really set out for that to happen,” says frontman Eddie Vedder. ”But I think it’s kind of the ultimate compliment.”

Pearl Jam’s journey from megastardom to cultdom has been an unusual one — more often it works the other way. Formed from the ashes of grunge forerunners Mother Love Bone in 1990, the band released its first album, Ten, in 1991, and it has since gone 12 times platinum, thanks to hits like ”Alive,” ”Even Flow,” and ”Jeremy.” Multiplatinum follow-ups Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy (1994) solidified their status as rock icons. But the band’s provocative liberal politics and high-profile confrontation with Ticketmaster alienated some of their fans, and Vedder was never really comfortable with fame. By the mid-’90s, Pearl Jam had pretty much stopped promoting themselves, refusing to shoot videos or do most interviews. ”We had to take it back,” says guitarist Mike McCready, ”because we were all gonna lose our minds.”

Six months after the Gorge show, Vedder is sitting in a rehearsal studio inside Pearl Jam’s Seattle headquarters, a large converted warehouse that’s home to the band’s management, publicity, and merchandising operations. It’s six weeks before the May 2 release of the band’s eighth album, Pearl Jam, and the place is abuzz with tour and CD-release preparations. The album’s first single, the gritty antiwar track ”World Wide Suicide,” has hit No. 1 on the rock charts faster than any Pearl Jam song before it, and in his notoriously taciturn way, even Vedder is excited. ”It’s great to hear that people like the song, and especially a song with a certain amount of context,” he says. ”I don’t think it’s adding to the negativity, and it’s a release because you’ve found a way to process what you’re thinking about every f—ing day.”