Emerging from the Seattle grunge scene, Pearl Jam, on the heels of its 2009 effort Backspacer, is clearly the wild card of this year's Jazz Fest headliners. While hip-hop newcomer Drake has his peers among festival performers at a primarily blues, funk, country, Cajun, zydeco, West African and R&B favored event, Pearl Jam stands alone.
Its landmark 1991 debut Ten, followed by Vs. and Vitalogy, cemented the group as the mouthpiece of and template for 1990s alternative rock, along with fellow Washington staters Nirvana and the Sub Pop set. Pearl Jam purposefully set itself apart from its mainstream rock peers — refusing to cooperate with Ticketmaster, self-releasing material on its own Monkeywrench label, and shooting only a handful of music videos.
The band — its core including guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and bassist Jeff Ament — is fronted by singer Eddie Vedder, who weaves confessional, powerful storytelling with weighty political and personal conflicts. On trademark singles "Jeremy" and "Even Flow," both from Ten, which saw a masterful reissue last year, Vedder roars as he tackles teen suicide and homelessness, respectively.
Gossard and McCready's guitar textures craft a Pete Townshend-like wall of sound, while Vedder's signature baritone, a Jim Morrison-esque ramble with Bruce Springsteen grit, also is the unfortunate fountain from which imitators have sprung —virtually every singer from any post-grunge or nu-metal outfit of the last decade is a Vedder caricature.
The Bush administration fueled much of the band's output over the last eight years, but Backspacer, Pearl Jam's ninth studio album, leans heavily on pop hooks with tighter, more up-tempo production — a reactionary, optimistic tone responding positively to Barack Obama's presidency. Vedder has matured into an environmentalist and humanitarian: In response to Hurricane Katrina, the band performed a 2005 benefit concert in Chicago, and proceeds went to the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and the Jazz Foundation of America. — Alex Woodward
5 p.m. Saturday, May 1, Acura Stage