Steve Martin used to suggest in his arena comedy act, “Hey, let’s get small!”
Eddie Vedder is trying. Not only has he backed away from the enormity of his band, ’90s alt-rock giants Pearl Jam, he’s pointed the shrink ray at his instrument. Last month, Vedder released his first non-soundtrack solo album, “Ukulele Songs,” and now he’s undertaking an unusually intimate tour with the same tiny guitar.
The ukulele revival in recent years has manifested in everything from photo opps like Taylor Swift’s playing one on her current tour and Diana Krall pulling one out this week at the Montreal Jazz Festival to genuine composition, such as the charming uke-driven pop of Dent May or Amanda Palmer’s wicked EP of uked Radiohead covers.
But Vedder’s use of the Hawaiian four-stringed guitar doesn’t play like a gimmick — at least not during his Tuesday night concert at the Chicago Theatre, his first in a two-night stand.
7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
It was an opening, an opportunity for focus and reacquaintance. Vedder, 46, was a surfer, after all, when he auditioned for the band that would become Pearl Jam 20 years ago. He’s never seemed exactly comfortable breathing that band’s rarefied air — he mentioned during a comic anecdote Tuesday night how he was “freaked out about the attention the group was getting” — and repeatedly has sought smaller side and solo projects that purposely lacked the presence and prominence of his Pearl Jam career.
This latest finally affords fans the kind of deep, rich, personable display we’ve gotten from Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young at similar points in their careers. Vedder on Tuesday stalked the stage much like Young did in early May — slightly befuddled, deep in thought, grabbing at instruments (ukuleles, mandolins, acoustic an electric guitars, each tended by techs wearing white lab coats) and grabbing at songs.
He started with that uke, started small, plowing through six new songs (including “Light Today” backed by a reel-to-reel of ocean wave noise). But Vedder is large and contains multitudes. Vedder soon was looming large, even without the help of feisty opening act Glen Hansard, who joined him on several songs, and the occasional string section. “Rise,” in particular, bashed out on a mandolin, lifted the crowd and seemed to raise Vedder into a lofty but comfortable space (“find my direction magnetically”). He followed it with the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” adding heft and gravitas to a featherweight song and smiling — as much as Vedder smiles — when the crowd took it over, not singing along but whistling the blackbird’s call.
The energy and power of the night built slowly and surely, stretching Vedder’s natural tension through two-plus hours into the first (“Parting Ways,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Falling Slowly with Hansard and more) and then second encore. Not the most delicate of vocalists, Vedder mastered varied dynamics and range with a string quartet on “Just Breathe” and “The End,” even though he struggled with the high notes on the latter.
An Evanston native, Vedder waxed nostalgic about younger days spent hanging out in the Chicago Theatre, back when it was in disrepair and he was watching “Silent Night, Deadly Night” on his Dec. 23 birthday, sneaking in liquor and flicking cigarettes into the fountains. “Glad to see it looking so nice,” he said. “I feel I’m looking a little better myself.”
But Vedder’s big band will be back soon — and back to the Chicago area. Pearl Jam plays two 20th-anniversary concerts Sept. 3-4 at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis.