Pearl Jam/Sleater-Kinney

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR 7/20/2006

Music Reviews Pearl Jam
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Pearl Jam/Sleater-Kinney

For years, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in public, where everyone could see him waging war upon himself. But what ended up being his biggest personal challenge proved an altogether more private affair.

For nearly two decades, McCready has quietly battled the ravages of Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder that, according to recent estimates, affects more than a million Americans.

He has only recently taken his troubles public in an effort to raise awareness around the debilitating disease, and this evening enlisted his bandmates (along with comedian David Cross and opener Sleater-Kinney, whose powerful but abbreviated six-song set constituted one of the band’s final shows together), in a special benefit show for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

Given that Pearl Jam routinely sells out venues five to ten times larger than the 2800-seat “Schnitz,” tonight’s benefit represented an extraordinary, intimate setting and a band at the top of its live game.

Coming as it did at the tail end of the group’s latest North American tour, the evening’s show had a little something for everyone: for casual fans, there were plenty of recognizable songs with which they could shout and clap along to their heart’s content (including a rip-roaring version of the Vitalogy-era anthem “Not For You” that segued into a snippet of Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl,” a hyperspeed take on the band’s latest single “World Wide Suicide,” and some choice cuts from their Ten debut – “Even Flow” and “Why Go”).

For the band’s purist diehards, there were loads of rarities in the setlist (the non-album tracks “Sad” and “Don’t Gimme No Lip,” the latter sung by guitarist Stone Gossard after having a birthday cake dumped over his head in honor of having turned 40 on the day) and some cameo-appearance covers in the encores from new Portland resident/former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr (a fire-and-brimstone whirl through “All Along the Watchtower”) and the women of Sleater-Kinney (who provided harmony vocals and comically semi-choreographed dance steps on a sweetly lilting version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”).

Watching the men of Pearl Jam go about their craft is somewhat akin to watching a kindergarten classroom art project: they’re creating something interesting together, but they’re doing it separately, each in his own idiosyncratic way.

As the band ripped through the fan favorite “Corduroy,” McCready bounced around the left side of the stage like a man with his pants alight; bassist Jeff Ament grooved back and forth, eyes shut in bottom-heavy reverie, nearly running into McCready at various intervals; singer Eddie Vedder leaped skyward, windmilling his Fender Telecaster Pete Townshend-style; while Gossard and drummer Matt Cameron locked eyes and grooves, playing seemingly only to each other in a room packed to the rafters with ardent, vocal admirers.

To paraphrase the old country/western joke, Pearl Jam’s classic rock comes in both shades of Black: Flag and Sabbath, puncturing its radio-friendly ‘70s guitar anthems with just enough punk rage and DIY attitude to challenge its listeners, ensuring they don’t get too comfortable with the output.

By the time the evening closed with an ensemble rave-up on “this old song from Uncle Neil” (“Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”) and a sprawling, psychedelic spin on the band’s Hendrix tribute “Yellow Ledbetter,” Vedder was moonwalking to the side of the stage, omnipresent wine bottle in hand, while McCready seized center stage with an evening-capping “Star Spangled Banner,” complete with behind-the-head guitar gymnastics.

Vedder had earlier told the faithful that McCready’s “courageous gesture to come forward with all he’s dealt with… takes fucking guts,” and it was only fitting that the man for whom the evening was dedicated ended it in the spotlight, leaving nothing on the table in his effort to spill a little blood, sweat and even tears for the cause.