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Pearl Jam plays long, plays hard in Charlotte show

By Théoden Janes

Wednesday’s concert at Time Warner Cable Arena featured no costume changes, no backup dancers, no pre-recorded video montages. Confetti didn’t rain down from the ceiling at the end.

There wasn’t even an opening act.

Just Eddie Vedder (now 48 years old), his band Pearl Jam (now 23), and the purest major rock show to grace Charlotte in almost two years – since Foo Fighters commanded the same arena floor in a similarly straight-ahead, stripped-down way in November 2011.

Any hardcore fan of the Seattle grunge band has probably taken note of the Lightning Bolt Tour that started in Chicago in July, and that the show can run almost three hours and spans 30-plus songs. Those same fans know that every night, the setlist gets shuffled, reworked, populated with a few surprises.

“Pendulum” – a wistful, folksy track on Pearl Jam’s new album, “Lightning Bolt” – is always the leadoff song. Otherwise, all bets are off.

The band often doesn’t even stick to the agreed-upon setlist. In Charlotte, the pre-show setlist that was distributed to the media featured “My Father’s Son,” “Let the Records Play” and “Wash,” but those were bypassed; and “Rearviewmirror” finished off the band’s initial set instead of “Better Man,” which was the planned closer.

Of course, these are all technicalities. The big question is: Does Vedder still have it? And the answer, resoundingly, is abso-freakin’-lutely.

In an alternate universe, Vedder has slowed down. His voice is ragged. Washed-up. In this universe, however, his vocals are as muscular as ever, still wonderfully rangy when they need to be (see: the high notes he can still hit toward the end of “Black”), still unreliant on the slightest hint of a computerized cheat or backing track.

He’ll kick over the mic stand, but it doesn’t feel desperate. He’ll take pulls from a bottle of alcohol all night, but he doesn’t get sloppy. He’ll jump up and down, whip his head around on his neck, allow himself to be hoisted in the air in the pit (during “Porch,” which wrapped the first of two lengthy encores).

Dressed in grey jeans and a flannel shirt over a black tee, Vedder & Co. went heavy on the new album and deep cuts such as “Last Exit” (off 1994’s “Vitalogy”) and “Severed Hand” (off 2006’s self-titled CD), and they certainly kept things in perspective.

That is to say, when they launched into revered smashes Wednesday, they allowed fans to relish them. “Even Flow,” “Better Man,” “Alive” and “Black” all turned into eight- or nine-plus-minute opuses, punctuated by crowd singalongs and grooving, grinding guitar solos that highlighted Mike McCready (lead), Stone Gossard (rhythm) and Jeff Ament (bass) in equal measure.

Vedder’s patter was kept to a minimum, but left an impression.

He made light of the fact that Pearl Jam hadn’t been through Charlotte in 10 years: “To be honest, we might be a bit upset because you have a basketball team and we don’t,” he said, lamenting the SuperSonics’ move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

He appeared to be spoiling the World Series for those recording it at home, then cleverly caught himself, then spoiled it after all: “It’s too early to call it, but ... 3-0 in the fourth (inning). That’s all I’m gonna say. 3-0. But there might be sirens in Boston tonight,” he said, before launching into “Sirens,” the second single off the new album.

A few groans? Maybe. Genuine complaints? None. Though the show lasted 165 minutes, you could count on one hand how many people sat for more than one of the 30 songs.

It was, without question, a night to celebrate real rock. Fists raised. A touch of salt and pepper in a lot of the hair on a lot of the heads. Even pot smoke wafting through the arena.

Old-school, baby. Old-school.

Janes: 704-358-5897
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