The first thing you would have noticed arriving in Hyde Park last Frday to see Pearl Jam is how many more people there appear to be than were here for last year’s Hard Rock Calling weekend, the size of the crowd, a hint of mob surliness and the press of people at the front of the stage something of a concern later for a visibly worried Eddie Vedder. It’s almost 10 years to the day, after all, since nine Pearl Jam fans were crushed to death during the band’s performance on June 30, 2000, at the Rosskilde festival, over there in Denmark. No wonder at one point he looks so rattled.
For the moment, though, everyone is in good spirits, enjoying the good weather and The Gaslight Anthem, who’ve just appeared to a huge cheer. Brian Fallon is struggling with a heavy cold, a prohibitive hoarseness apparent even as the band kicks into “American Slang”. With a headlining show the next night at Brixton Academy, they may actually have been relieved to be playing such a relatively short set, although you couldn’t say they hold anything back, especially Fallon. You would have understood him perhaps trying to preserve his voice, nurse it through the next 30 minutes to make sure it’s in the best possible shape for Brixton. But as always he gives it everything he’s got.
“American Slang” is the first of five songs from the new album that shares its name and is followed by first UK outings for “The Diamond Church Street Choir”, “Bring It On”, “Queen Of Lower Chelsea” and “Boxer”. The four songs they play from breakthrough album the ’59 Sound, which they toured almost to death following its 2008 release, are much reinvigorated for not having been played much for the best part of a year.
“Old White Lincoln” has been funkily rearranged, while “The ’59 Sound” and “Great Expectations” are re-visited with a relish that was probably beginning to wane when they played their last UK show of 2009 at the Reading Festival. I’d been expecting them to close with “We Did It When We Were Young”, which brings down the curtain on American Slang. In the event, they roll out the dependable “Backseats”, to no complaints from anyone.
By the time Pearl Jam come on at around 8.00 pm, the sun and too much to drink has had a worrying effect on some of the crowd and there’s an edgy mood. Bottles are flying and bouncing off people’s heads in scenes reminiscent of some ghastly by-gone Reading, and not far from where I’m standing there are a couple of fights, one guy – who turns out when I speak to him to be an Uncut reader – flattened by an oaf in an ale-soaked blue singlet and tattoos.
There’s a huge surge towards the front of the stage that coincides with a triumphant opening salvo of “Given To Fly”, “Why Go?” and “Corduroy”, Vedder quick to ask the crowd to calm down, ease back, make room for each other. The seething mass in front of him seems to settle, and as instructed take three steps back, Eddie himself beginning to relax as they do as they’re told, swigging from a bottle of red wine and looking crisp and dapper – for the moment, anyway – in a Devo T-shirt, underneath a crisp black and white checked shirt.
“I don’t mean to sound redundant,” he announces, repeating his message to the crowd to chill, “but your safety is more important than me being boring.”
The band know what the vast rump of people have come to hear and duly oblige, six of the songs that follow taken from Ten, the album they will always be remembered for and which evidently means most to the many thousands here tonight, a staggeringly good “Once” a very early highlight. The set doesn’t, however, feel predictable for all the familiarity of what they play and is enhanced no end by some genuine surprises, like the cover of Joe Strummer’s “Arms Aloft In Aberdeen”, from the posthumously released Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ album, Streetcore.
“Better Man” from Vitalogy is a good, but curiously underwhelming set-closer. But, hey, it’s only 9.30, and Pearl Jam aren’t due off-stage until the 10 o’clock curfew, so there’s a half hour left yet for encores, which come plentifully, “Alive” played at last, alongside a rousing “Black”, “Porch” and the equally venerable “Yellow Ledbetter”.