Passion and power are two of the requirements of a great rock band. Singer Eddie Vedder would probably add idealism to that list. And the group he fronts, Pearl Jam, played all those qualities to the hilt in the first of three nights at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield a week ago Wednesday.
Sporting a catalogue full of songs about lives gnarled by bad circumstances, the drive for love and hope, and the ripples of modern cultural trauma, Pearl Jam played as if they’d been reborn — as if they’d taken the stage only a handful of times and needed to let a pent-up reservoir of energy and frustration rush out of their bodies and brains. As the audience surfed all the twists of their sonic rush, singing along to almost every song and hanging on the notes of Mike McCready’s deft, cutting, classic-rock guitar solos, it became obvious that this was more of a cleansing, communal experience than an average rock concert.
The only hitch was a mix that favored the band’s volume over Vedder’s vocals. His knotty phrasing and deep tones — in the service of often poetic lyrics — make him one of the most interesting mainstream singers to emerge from the alternative-rock era. So positioning his warbling as more of a presence in the mix than a storytelling force may have been a mistake. But the emotional aim of the entire group was so sharp that it didn’t much matter. Laying into even their best-known songs — "Even Flow," "Deep" — at brisk tempos, Pearl Jam demonstrated rock’s ability to wring meaning from raw blocks of sound.
The fast-paced and sloppy opening 45-minute set by Brit-punk legends the Buzzcocks — who are in some ways the slight, perky, pop antithesis of Pearl Jam’s heavyweight punk-informed rock — proved that sometimes a sonic blur is just a sonic blur. They did no justice to their clever lyrics or hooks. After just a handful of numbers, their buzzing became tedious.
Early in Pearl Jam’s set, Vedder announced the band’s intention of playing their entire repertoire — 105 songs — during the three-night Tweeter Center stand. They made it through not quite 30 the first night. That included "Bushleaguer," their barbed commentary on the president’s roots in America’s economic aristocracy. It’s a number that’s earned them threats. But as Vedder had explained earlier in the show while gently folding an American flag that had been hurled up from the audience, "As long as there is freedom to come up on a rock-and-roll stage and say what we want, that’s what this stands for."