Eddie Vedder delivers old-time alt-rock with newfound fervor and Earthlings

The veteran Pearl Jam frontman is out on solo road trek ahead of the release of a new album later this week.

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Eddie Vedder performs at the Auditorium Theatre on Wednesday night in the first of two dates at the Chicago venue.

Eddie Vedder performs at the Auditorium Theatre on Wednesday night in the first of two dates at the Chicago venue.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In the 30-plus years that Eddie Vedder has been a part of the rock music pantheon, he’s played a full cast of characters on stage. There’s been the unhinged banshee that made early Lollapalooza appearances look like stunt double tryouts; the eager Cubs fan who got to live out his field of dreams headlining Wrigley Field; and the emotional wild card that flipped the script on “MTV Unplugged.” Yet, on Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theatre — the first of two nights in a short run of solo shows — Vedder was simply a singer-songwriter in his element.

The rare appearance sans the members of Pearl Jam, served as a sounding board for Vedder’s latest solo material, before his new record “Earthling” hits streets on Friday. Though the wide-spanning performance on this night was bookended by a curated assortment of covers, Vedder devoted the meaty midsection to previewing nine of the 13 new tracks that show his ever-growing range.

Standouts included the album’s lead-off track “Invincible” with its cosmic lo-fi sheen, the winding Americana ballad “Long Way,” and the fast-paced surf rock number “Try” (with Stevie Wonder supplying harmonica on the album version). Perhaps the most evocative, though, was the alt rock in memoriam, “Brother The Cloud,” which many have assumed was written about his late Seattle comrade Chris Cornell, though Vedder has yet to confirm it.

For now, the brief tour jaunt only includes six cities. The idea, Vedder said, came out of working in the studio with his supergroup backing band The Earthlings, who made their debut at his Ohana Festival last September and have been a huge asset on the new material. The troupe is comprised of Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith as well as former RHCP guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, Jane’s Addiction bassistChris Chaney, The Frames/Swell Season talent Glen Hansard on guitar and vocals, as well as newcomer guitaristAndrew Watt who, up until now, has been a well-known producer for Top 40 pop stars but will soon earn a reputation as a bonafide shredder.

Eddie Vedder (front) and The Earthlings — Andrew Watt (from left), Josh Klinghoffer and Chad Smith on drums — perform on Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theatre.

Eddie Vedder (front) and The Earthlings — Andrew Watt (from left), Josh Klinghoffer and Chad Smith on drums — perform on Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theatre.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Watching these guys create and perform in the studio together, we had to get it out on the road,” Vedder said at one point. And this night’s show quickly took on that persona, akin to watching the sextet jam together out of their garage. Being a fly on the wall in this setting felt just as special, even though the two-and-a-half-hour set was a bit slow to start, coming out of the gates with four covers that were maybe too much of a prolonged jam session. But when the group got their footing, they showed true chemistry.

Such was the case with “I’ll Be Waiting,” the song that Vedder and Hansard contributed to the soundtrack of “Flag Day,” which begs for the pair to do more duets. Even when The Earthlings took on Pearl Jam numbers like “Not For You” and “Porch,” they delivered them with the same bombast that fans have come to expect from Vedder’s other brothers in arms. It’s not an easy task, considering the rabid fandom for the purity of the ‘90s mainstays. Yet, while the outliers might naturally be drawn to make comparisons — the age-old dilemma for well-known frontmen that go solo — the thing is, if you’re someone like Eddie Vedder, you don’t just help define a generation and go softly into the night. You keep evolving, keep creating and keep hoping people come back for more.

And for him, they always do. Especially in Chicago where the Evanston-reared artist fits into our allegiance complex, where people always want to root Vedder on. Especially as he regales with insider stories about the Skokie Swift CTA line and seeing his first concert at the same Auditorium Theatre (Bruce Springsteen in 1977), then calling out Chris Chelios in the crowd and name-checking Ernie Banks during a brief moment of soliloquy.

Opening the show was Hansard, giving every fiber of his being in delivering “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” from the hit movie and Broadway show, “Once.” Though he was without his Swell Season partner Marketa Irglova, it was a great preview for when they return next month at Cadillac Palace Theater for a special one-off. Not surprisingly, at the conclusion of the five-song set, Hansard received a well-earned standing ovation.

It was a response that would be repeated again by the night’s conclusion as Vedder and crew did good on their promise to try and “make history” for the young first-timers spotted in the front row, in a show that was anything but “boring.” If only Nikki Sixx had been there to see it.

Set List:

1.“Drive” (R.E.M. cover)

2.“Room at the Top” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cover)

3.“Here Comes the Sun” (The Beatles cover)

4.“I’m One” (The Who cover)

5.“I’ll Be Waiting” (Vedder and Hansard song)

6.“The Dark”

7.“Invincible”

8.“Long Way”

9.“The Haves”

10.“Brother The Cloud”

11.“Fallout Today”

12.“Mrs. Mills”

13.“Not For You” (Pearl Jam)

14.“Try”

15.“Rose of Jericho”

16.“Precious” (The Pretenders cover)

17.“Better Man” (Pearl Jam)

18.“Give Blood” (Pete Townshend cover)

19.“Hard Sun” (Indio cover)

20.“Dirty Frank” (Pearl Jam)

21.“Isn’t It A Pity” (George Harrison cover)

22.“Porch” (Pearl Jam)

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