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Pearl Jam as eclectic as always in triumphant, emotional Wrigley Field return

Eddie Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam perform at Wrigley Field Saturday, August, 18, 2018, the first of two nights scheduled at the ballpark. | Erin Brown/For the Sun-Times

By the time Pearl Jam played a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” toward the end of the second and final encore on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, all hell broke loose. Several people had climbed their way on top of the dugouts and started dancing, one guy sprang from the seats and sprinted across the baseball diamond before being swiftly tackled by security, and even band frontman Eddie Vedder himself was running on stage while wearing a batting helmet.

With emotions running high throughout a three-hour stacked marathon from the rockers, by the end, everyone in the ballpark needed a little release.

Pearl Jam shows remain some of the most unpredictable and eclectic live performances. The band’s nightly set list changes have led to a series of bootlegs that fill up a dedicated Sirius XM channel. But the curveballs served up during night one of a two-night stand in Chicago were unexpected, even by Pearl Jam standards.

Pearl Jam

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Wrigley Field, 1060 W. Addison

Tickets: $85-$105

Info: cubs.com/pearljam

Take for instance: Things got weird when Dennis Rodman made a cameo as Vedder’s ukulele handler (and spared no time bringing up North Korea), and were downright cringe-worthy when the Pearl Jam frontman ousted an attendee on the main floor holding a sign with derogatory verbiage directed at Vedder. It came just moments after the singer warned the men in the crowd there was “no place” for the alleged assault at the park a few weeks earlier during a Foo Fighters show.

“The least we can do to show our appreciation for you guys,” said a determined Vedder, “is to give one of the best shows of our lives.” And they succeeded with at least one of the band’s best shows in Chicago in recent memory. Even better than when they rebounded from a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay at Wrigley Field back in 2013, a memory that came up on more than a few occasions on this night.

Mike McCready of Pearl Jam performs at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam performs at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Though the show started slow, with a mellow slide into “Wash,” “Low Light” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” it picked up speed by “Corduroy,” driven by the intense, synergistic musicianship of guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, drummer Matt Cameron and keyboardist Boom Gaspar, who make the finale of nearly every song sound as if they’re ready to declare it a “good night and see you next time.”

Seeing Cameron behind the drumkit, in particular, was a mixed bag of emotions. Cameron is notable for pulling double duty in Pearl Jam and the closely associated Soundgarden, a band still reeling from the untimely 2017 death of its frontman Chris Cornell. Cornell was a close friend of Vedder’s, and the singer was visibly choked up while leading Pearl Jam into an apt cover of Cornell’s solo song “Missing,” which they had performed for the first time at a hometown show in Seattle a few days before.

With Cornell, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley all gone, there’s a heaviness that permeates Pearl Jam shows now, knowing the band is one of the last complete bastions of the Seattle grunge scene that defined a generation. In some ways, it felt like Pearl Jam acknowledged this fact on Saturday night, sticking heavily to ‘90s-era material (“Animal,” “Alive,” “State of Love and Trust”) with extended outros, which made it feel like they will, in fact, never stop playing them.

Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam performs at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times
Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam performs at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Halfway into the set, Vedder also paid tribute to Tom Petty, brandishing a guitar gifted to him by the late singer-songwriter. “Last summer, when [Tom] played here, I know how important that was to him,” said Vedder, leading into a sing-a-long of “I Won’t Back Down.”

During moments like these, it was hard to discern who was the bigger music fan in the crowd — any of the throngs of 40,000 people or Vedder himself, who frequently waxed nostalgic about his heroes in both music and sports. He wished for the days of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo. He even got Tom Ricketts to leave the Cubs’ 2016 World Series Trophy on stage for a song. Vedder, who grew up in Evanston, also performed during a video replay of David Bote’s incredible walk-off grand slam earlier in the week before covering the rookie’s walk-on song, “Rebel Rebel.”

“I just remember coming here to this park as a little kid. It was always so simple and joyful,” Vedder recalled. “There’s always so much joy in this place.”

Set List

Wash

Low Light

Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town

Breakerfall

Corduroy

Hail Hail

Animal

Getaway

Leaving Here (Edward Holland Jr. cover)

Present Tense

Even Flow

Missing (Chris Cornell cover)

Garden

Not For You

Can’t Deny Me

Wishlist

I Won’t Back Down (Tom Petty cover)

Porch

Just Breathe

Sleeping By Myself

Footsteps

State Of Love And Trust

Breath

Know Your Rights (The Clash cover)

Do The Evolution

Alone

Rearviewmirror

Rebel Rebel (David Bowie cover)

Better Man

Alive

Rockin’ In The Free World (Neil Young cover)

Yellow Ledbetter

Jeff Ament (right) and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam perform at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, on the first of two sold-out nights at the ballpark. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times
Jeff Ament (right) and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam perform at Wrigley Field on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, on the first of two sold-out nights at the ballpark. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times