Pearl Jam / Sept. 16, 2005 / Ottawa, Ontario (Corel Centre)

Pearl Jam / Sept. 16, 2005 / Ottawa, Ontario (Corel Centre)

Pearl Jam is well past its days as the '90s chart-toppers whose every move was chronicled by the music press, its albums now satiating the core group of fans that didn't jump off the bandwagon when the band's music began to mature beyond the tastes of the mainstream.

But in a live setting, Pearl Jam is arguably mightier and more unpredictable than ever. Having broken free from the standard album/tour cycle with last fall's Vote for Change outing, the group -- without a new album to promote -- is in the midst of a sold-out run through Canada that is taking in such far-flung locales as Thunder Bay, Ontario, and St. John's, Newfoundland.

While these shows are featuring more "greatest hits" than usual, they are also unearthing some of the rarest material the band has to offer, a duality that still makes Pearl Jam a must-see after all these years.

On Sept. 16 in Ottawa, the band wasted no time drawing the audience into its clutches, opening with the rare, pre-"Ten" B-side "Wash" in near darkness and then ripping into "Go," "Hail, Hail," "Animal" and "Brain of J," among the most powerful, punishing songs in its catalog.

Frontman Eddie Vedder seemed to derive added gravitas after being shocked by his microphone during "Corduroy," which segued into a haunting "Immortality" and its appropriately optimistic rejoinder, "In Hiding." But even some jabs at President Bush that seemed headed toward political rant territory were tempered with a joke about the bumpy Canadian highways, as Vedder offered, "There's a company from America called Halliburton that would be happy to come fix the problem for you."

Vedder "We're taking care of some requests tonight," he later told the crowd. It was also clear the Seattle-based quintet was in the mood for some fun, as it then dusted off the outtake "Don't Gimme No Lip" for the first time ever.

With its generic power-chord riff and repetitive lyrics, the Stone Gossard-sung ditty is not exactly a hidden gem (Gossard acknowledged this by announcing in semi-bewilderment, "You guys have been asking for this one," as if even he wasn't sure why). Still, it was genuinely amusing to see Vedder and guitarist Mike McCready handle backing vocals while Gossard strutted around sans guitar.

The show continued to peak from there with a sizzling "Even Flow," an extended "Black" that found the audience bellowing the wordless outtro while Vedder looked on in admiration and an authoritative take on "Rearviewmirror" enlivened by a locked in, psychedelic mid-section.

What followed was an encore that was almost as long as the preceding main set, with Vedder and bassist Jeff Ament swigging red wine before an acoustic rendition of the ultra-obscurity "Bee Girl," and McCready jaunting out into the audience to solo at the end of an anthemic "Alive."

The fun continued as Pearl Jam brought up opening act Sleater-Kinney to sing harmonies on a delightful cover of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," which met with screams of joy from the Canadian crowd. Claiming some spotlight for himself, Ament took all four solos (one of which is usually reserved for each member other than drummer Matt Cameron) during the frantic "Leaving Here," shrugging his shoulders in "hey, why not?" fashion afterward.

By this point, the audience had witnessed a near-flawless performance (the lone exception: a botched transition during "Jeremy"), and the band had been on stage for well past two-and-a-half hours. But neither Pearl Jam nor the crowd seemed ready to leave, so the show continued with the house lights on, revealing an arena full of people still jumping up and down and pumping their fists for Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and the usual smily closer, "Yellow Ledbetter."

Ament's "Leaving Here" antics summed up the experience perfectly: why not hog the solos? Why not play for three hours? Why not try a song that has never been played before? Why not tour just for the hell of it, even if it means performing for a few thousand faithful on a weeknight in the middle of absolutely nowhere? Pearl Jam's finally at a place where no rules apply, and they're sounding all the better for it.

Here is Pearl Jam' set list:

"Hail, Hail"
"Brain of J"
"In Hiding"
"Don't Gimme No Lip"
"Even Flow"
"Green Disease"
"I Got ID"
"Better Man"

Encore 1:
"Bee Girl"
"I Believe in Miracles"
"Sleight of Hand"
"Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town"
"Crazy Mary"

Encore 2:
"Given to Fly"
"Not for You"
"Harvest Moon" (with Sleater-Kinney)
"Leaving Here" (with Sleater-Kinney)
"Rockin' in the Free World" (with Sleater-Kinney)
"Yellow Ledbetter"