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Monday, Sept. 5, 2011

Pearl Jam Destination Weekend @ Alpine Valley

Sept. 3-4, 2011

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Pearl Jam turned 20 this weekend. If you forgot to call or send a card, don't beat yourself up. Given the string of rather tepid albums that began as far back as 1996's No Code, you can be forgiven for not paying attention. It's not that they ever went bad, per se; they merely settled into a dull routine. But while most of us turned our ears elsewhere, their most loyal fans never stopped believing. To these die-hards, this anniversary, marked by a two-day festival at Alpine Valley, as well as a book and an upcoming movie from Cameron Crowe, became something of a religious experience, at least if the ecstatic vibe (and that van in the parking lot with "The Church of Pearl Jam" painted on the back) is any indication.

The faithful were legion, thousands upon thousands of them, and they certainly weren't there for the opening bands, which included Mudhoney, Queens of the Stone Age and The Strokes as well as a slew of side-stage acts. Hippies, frat bros, teenagers chaperoned by parents with windbreakers ever so stylishly tied around their waists, foreigners doing their best to explain in broken English how far they had traveled to be there, all were to be found in that valley in East Troy. Unsurprisingly though, the bulk of the audience was made up of white 30- and 40-somethings, those old enough to have latched on to grunge during their formative years.

Mudhoney was an obvious choice to get things started on the main stage since without their classic Superfuzz Bigmuff, grunge, as such, may never have happened. They are just as crushingly sludgy even after all these years, and Mark Arm can still howl like a monster. "Touch Me I'm Sick" sounds as fresh today as it must have in '88, and it was a pleasure to hear it two days in a row.

Queens of the Stone Age are a bit of an enigma live; the songs are great, and they play them well, but there's something about their show that just makes you not care. Maybe in concert it's easier to see what a construct they are, even if it is a well-constructed construct. They seem to fall victim to the kinds of clichés they play with on record, right down to lead singer Josh Homme's stage banter ("I think if we do this right, we could all get laid tonight").

Though they've never been able to match the excitement generated by their smash debut Is This It, The Strokes still reliably put on a charming, lively show. Giving the people what they want, they pulled mostly from that first album.

Unlike some of the other acts, who made only minor adjustments to their set lists from day to day, Pearl Jam divided the weekend sets into two fairly clear categories. Rainy but warm, Saturday was devoted to deep cuts and hardcore fan favorites, while the cold but dry Sunday show was more suited to the casual listener, a kind of greatest-hits that included "Jeremy," "Even Flow," "Daughter" and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." Whether well known or obscure, the band seemed determined to make every song count, belting them out to an endlessly appreciative audience.

Although throughout the festival members of one band or another were continually popping onstage to guest with each other, the big surprise was the unannounced appearance of Chris Cornell, who came out to do a handful of songs by the short-lived but fondly remembered Temple of the Dog, which was basically Pearl Jam plus Cornell. In addition to "Reach Down," "Call Me a Dog" and "Say Hello 2 Heaven," among others, Cornell and company also threw in a song or two by Mother Love Bone, another near-legendary group that featured many of the same musicians.

For the most part the shows were engrossing. At times they took some strange turns, especially in terms of the choice of cover songs. The Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" were probably to be expected, but Public Image Ltd.'s "Public Image" and the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" (with Mudhoney to boot) were pleasantly unforeseen. The main flaw of the performances was that at about two-and-a-half hours each, they were too long by a wide margin, although some of the more avid fans would surely beg to differ. Overlong guitar solos only accentuated this problem, and by the time Mike McCready closed out the second show with a Jimi Hendrix-style workout of "The Star-Spangled Banner," one had to laugh at just how bloated (and at times self-indulgent) the sets were. So to recap, the shows were solid, respectable, even good, but then went on too long and got boring. Remind you of anyone we know?
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