The last time I saw Pearl Jam in concert, George W. Bush was in office.
In Denver on April 1, 2003 — two days before I saw the band at what was then the Ford Center in Oklahoma City — frontman Eddie Vedder had donned a Bush mask, before “impaling” it on his mike stand during the band’s performance of Bu$hleaguer.
The reaction from a country just weeks into what would become a decadelong war in Iraq was instantaneous.
Outrage boiled over, and there were reports of walkouts at Denver’s Pepsi Center. (It’s worth noting that this incident was less than a month after the Dixie Chicks’ infamous “We’re ashamed the president is from Texas” imbroglio.)
Tensions were high, and I can remember my college roommate and I entering the Ford Center, wondering if we’d be party to some happening — someone rushing the stage, or Vedder saying something equally inflammatory.
We were swept up in the moment, the hysteria fueled by local TV reports that there would be protests.
As it turned out, Vedder dispatched the tension early on.
I couldn’t remember exactly what he said to address the elephant in the room, but according to fan site Five Horizons, it was this: “They said, uh, 24 people left because they were upset at a, uh, anti-Bush administration remark. [crowd boos] You’re booing the story, right, you’re not booing me? Let’s clarify that. You know you could have written that story differently and you could have said 11,972 people cheered and applauded at what the singer said. … We pledged our support and love to the troops.”
A decade later, such a moment still lingers in my memory (that and the image of Vedder taking big slugs from a bottle of red wine all night long).
But we now live in an age where anyone can almost instantly spew their anger and opinions out to the world.
If Vedder had speared that mask in the age of Twitter and YouTube, he might have broken the Internet.
As it was, the incident became a minor footnote in Pearl Jam’s past.
Instead of imploding, as the Dixie Chicks ultimately did, Pearl Jam has endured and thrived in the interim, continuing to feel like a band of outsiders even as they consistently fill arenas and stadiums.
The band has never worn its celebrity comfortably, and that palpable unease with being rock gods is a big part of Pearl Jam’s continuing appeal.
The group has also become less strident over time, distancing itself from the fury of its early days — anyone recall the epic battle against Ticketmaster? — and settling into not exactly mellow, but content, middle age.
It’s something you couldn’t have told me at 22, that raging against one injustice or another would seem less urgent as time marched on.
I’ve grown up over the past 10 years, and so has Pearl Jam.
Rare is the rock band that can convincingly transition from rafter-swinging upstarts to respected elder statesmen of the genre, and, even more rare, do so without sacrificing credibility with critics or audiences.
That 2003 tour, supporting the 2002 release Riot Act, was also the last time Pearl Jam played Dallas, as it happens. (June 9, 2003, at the then-Smirnoff Music Centre, to be precise — although Vedder did perform a solo show at the Music Hall at Fair Park last fall.)
So much has transpired between then and now, but what I’m left with is one of the seminal bands of my youth, one of my gateways into rock music. The Seattle rockers have matured into a band it’s still OK to like, which isn’t something that can be said for all the acts of the early ’90s.
I came of age as grunge was in its ascendance, with acts like Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots (a group often accused of ripping off Pearl Jam’s sound) and Soundgarden making records that served, for a relatively unworldly listener, as gateway drugs.
Absorbing those now-classic LPs and reading about the influences behind them — were it not for Eddie Vedder’s profound love of the Who, it’s a safe bet I wouldn’t have dug into that group as early as I did — allowed for a gradual expansion of my sonic worldview.
Some kids lucked out and got hooked on Dylan or Elvis or the Stones at a formative age — I had the Beatles, Elton John and these ragged rock songs emanating from the Pacific Northwest.
To now hear Pearl Jam songs played on radio stations geared toward “classic rock” makes me feel on the cusp of AARP eligibility.
Still, it’s a good feeling to know that the songs you fell hard for as a kid — Even Flow, Daughter, even the impenetrable Yellow Ledbetter — hold up well.
What impresses me most as I’ve transitioned from a fresh-out-of-college spectator to a professional critic is how easily Pearl Jam navigated the choppy waters of superstardom simply by remaining true to itself.
I haven’t loved every record out of the three the band has released since Riot Act, but Vedder and his bandmates haven’t abandoned their artistic principles in order to move more units.
If anything, they’ve made the business harder for themselves, working as an independent act for the past four years, starting with 2009’s Backspacer.
Taking the path of most resistance, particularly for a band that could have cashed out and cruised through the rest of its career, is admirable.
I believe now, as I did then (even if it wasn’t something I articulated at the time), that quality wins out in the end. Not smoke and mirrors, not ginned-up controversy and not of-the-moment hits.
If you’re good at what you do, your work will endure — not just for 10 or 20 years, but 100.
Although it shouldn’t take the passage of so much time to reconsider and appreciate what Pearl Jam has given us, what better way to reconnect than in concert, Friday at American Airlines Center?
I’m sure I won’t be the only one applauding with a little extra force.