Pearl Jam / August 23, 2009 / Chicago (United Center)

Kathy Davis
Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (right) and Matt Cameron live in Los Angeles 2006.

The band may be best known for its ties to Seattle, but when Pearl Jam plays Chicago, make no mistake -- it's a hometown show for frontman Eddie Vedder.

On this cool August Sunday night (Aug. 23), it only took three songs for Vedder to have the sold-out United Center's 21,000 fans roaring with 'welcome back' approval. After unleashing "Why Go?," from PJ's recently reissued 1991 debut "Ten," Vedder quipped, "Why go home? I am home!" Echoes of rock flick "Almost Famous" aside, the emotional yet raucous, 28-song rollercoaster of a set not only marked Vedder's return to Chicago, but the band's first U.S. show in more than a year.

With new album "Backspacer" due in less than a month, Pearl Jam's first gig of a two-night stand seesawed between pounding rockers like 1994's "Spin The Black Circle" and ballads like "Man of the Hour" that vibrated with quiet intensity. The evening managed to draw, with near mathematical precision, equally from among the band's B-sides, stable of covers and nine studio albums, airing rarities alongside old favorites like "Even Flow."

Early in the set, a superlative take on lead "Backspacer" single "The Fixer" nestled between the mod 2000 outtake "Sad" and anthemic live staple "Given to Fly," from 1998's "Yield." Elsewhere, the band punctuated a pair of fierce Who covers -- "Love Reign O'er Me" and "The Real Me" -- with its own throat-ripper "Life Wasted," which closed the first of two multi-song encores. During encore two, the bluesy 1996 number "Smile," which featured bassist Jeff Ament on guitar and guitarist Stone Gossard on bass, rubbed up against punky new track "Supersonic."

But the diversity of the setlist was just one of the show's recurring memes. Vedder's banter returned again and again to his hometown. He first shared a story about winter skateboarding from work to the Evanston-bound L in the early 80s. Later, he recalled listening to the Jackson 5 as a North Side kid in the 70s and relating to its tiny tween frontman. The moment took a more poignant turn when Vedder said of Michael Jackson's death, "It feels like we lost him a long time ago," before unveiling a heartbreaking version of Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done."

Vedder seemed plenty relaxed, sharing his bottle of wine with the crowd more than once and joking his way through a few lyric flubs. But there were some moments when both he and bassist Ament seemed choked up, particularly while leading the crowd in a surprisingly emotional round of "Happy Birthday" for a local friend who was missing a Chicago PJ show for the first time that night. There was a tremble in Vedder's voice during the song that followed, a ballad of loss called "Come Back."

After a night exploring its nearly 20-year history, previewing the near future and paying homage to its favorite bands, Pearl Jam closed the evening with a final, fitting nod to its rock forebears. Lead guitarist Mike McCready tagged the Jimi Hendrix-informed "Yellow Ledbetter," bringing on a guitar-only "The Star Spangled Banner" like Hendrix's own exactly 40 Augusts ago at Woodstock.

Pearl Jam and opening band Bad Religion return to the United Center tonight for the second of their two Chicago shows.

Here is Pearl Jam's Aug. 23 setlist:

"Long Road"
"Why Go?"
"Gods' Dice"
"Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town"
"The Fixer"
"Given to Fly"
"Happy Birthday"
"Come Back"
"Even Flow"
"Save You"
"In Hiding"
"Man of the Hour"
"Got Some"
"Spin the Black Circle"

First encore:

"Love Reign O'er Me"
"Life Wasted"
"The Real Me"

Second encore:

"The Needle and the Damage Done"
"Yellow Ledbetter/Star Spangled Banner"