After spending the past decade dodging the media spotlight and releasing a string of eccentric albums greeted mostly by mainstream indifference, Pearl Jam is back with a career-redefining new album (cleverly titled “Pearl Jam”) and a renewed desire to spread their anti-Bush political message to the masses. That’s their party line, and they’re sticking to it.
In some ways, the band, which will appear Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, never left. Sure, they stopped making TV appearances, and their last MTV video — prior to “Life Wasted,” the second single from their current eponymous tour de force — was 1992’s “Jeremy.” All of which lends credence to the theory that the Seattle quintet essentially took a 10-year mental vacation — just as friend and one-time collaborator Neil Young was accused of doing during a five-year stint with Geffen Records, which slapped the Canadian singer with a $3 million lawsuit for making “unrepresentative,” noncommercial music.
Pearl Jam never got sued by longtime label Epic Records, though the two quietly parted ways in 2003. And it can never be said that their tenure with the label wasn’t prolific. After the multiplatinum success of ’90s smashes “Ten,” “Vs.” and “Vitalogy,” Eddie Vedder and company produced a steady stream of studio efforts (among them, the critically acclaimed “Binaural” and, most recently, 2002’s “Riot Act”) to complement a staggering 175 live albums. Of course, those recordings might never have existed had the band continued its doomed two-year legal battle with Ticketmaster, which was settled by the Justice Department in 1995. Now, Pearl Jam and Ticketmaster are working hand in hand, but again, times have changed.
The band’s lineup remains largely intact from its superstar heyday, featuring core members Vedder, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and bassist Jeff Ament. (Ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron signed on in 1998 to replace ailing ex-Chili Pepper Jack Irons.) But the attitude is markedly different.
After struggling through a turbulent 2000 divorce and an incident that year that left nine concertgoers dead at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, Vedder has reaffirmed his desire to use Pearl Jam’s fame as a means of speaking out against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. The band recently signed with a new label, improbably aligning themselves with BMG Music honcho Clive Davis, the man who discovered Barry Manilow. And before returning to MTV, they even turned up on late-night television, with rare appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
For their Bay Area run, which promises to touch on all phases of their colorful career, Pearl Jamwill be accompanied by another group of strangers to the small screen. Following an uncharacteristic cameo on the May season finale of the WB’s “Gilmore Girls” and the June release of their 18th studio album, “Rather Ripped,” alt-rock veterans Sonic Youth will set the stage at the Bill Graham with a typically raucous show heavy on new tracks, including “Incinerate” and “Pink Steam,” alongside a smattering of past hits like “100%.” They will headline a show of their own Friday at the Fillmore.