Ed Vedder is no dummy.
With the opportunity to embark on his first ever solo tour now upon him, largely thanks to the positive commercial and critical response from his recent “Into the Wild” soundtrack, the man has officially done his homework.
From song selection, set list pacing, stage banter and even set decoration, Vedder has come prepared for this 10-date West Coast jaunt, arming himself with the knowledge of what makes intimate shows like this work best. Accordingly, he has crafted a type of performance that some among the devoted Pearl Jam fan base might not normally go for, but will likely leave them fully satisfied nevertheless.
This is no small feat. Even though Vedder’s band has managed to evolve from the heights of ubiquitous mainstream rock saturation to somewhat more subdued, lower-profile status, people still associate him with his hard-rocking iconic ’90s-era persona. And although die-hard fans are aware of his work outside the context of the group, it’s no safe assumption that a solo tour based on performances of mostly non-band material would be a success. For Vedder then to truly pull this off is certainly not without some degree of difficulty.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, the production value was high for the April 15 performance at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. The two-hour set saw Vedder playing several acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, ukulele and harmonica on a stage set built to look like a cross between a basement studio and a science laboratory, complete with desks, chairs, props of reel-to-reel tape machines, suitcases and even a makeshift kick drum pedal attached to what appeared to be an empty case of Corona. There were three different backdrops, costume changes, a slew of guest appearances (Jack Irons, Ben Harper) and even pre-recorded backing tracks employed over the course of the set.
All this window dressing may seem slightly out of place for a solo performance of this nature. And although it’s unclear whether such conventions are being utilized for the sake of the audience or the performer himself, certainly art direction alone is not enough to make a show like this work. Thankfully for Vedder, he has enough songs in his repertoire to keep things interesting. Centering around the material he penned for “Into the Wild,” Vedder wisely chose to eschew Pearl Jam staples in favor of deeper studio tracks and covers to round out the 27-song set.
Never biting off more than he could musically chew, Vedder played to his own strengths just as well as he played to the crowd. Relying more on brute force than anything else to articulate his guitar playing, he hammered through a rousing “I Am Mine” like a flamenco Pete Townsend, the chorus of which stood out as one of the set’s more memorable melodic moments.
The melancholic simplicity of “Thumbing My Way” and the guitar break in “Rise” were also noteworthy flashes of musicality in a set largely dominated by Vedder’s thick baritone and rich, open chord guitar scraping. Lyrically, however, there was no mistaking James Taylor’s “Millworker” for one of Vedder’s own, as it seemed to resonate on an emotional level unlike anything else in the set.
Whereas similar frontman-turned-solo tour outings have worked for artists like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in the past, Vedder is smart enough to try a slightly different tact. Clearly he went out of his way to impress upon the audience that this tour is something of a live sonic experiment in and of itself (both he, his guitar tech and guests donned white lab coats at times throughout the night).
And although it might work to borrow Tweedy’s sometimes-dry, sometimes-confrontational audience interaction shtick, Vedder’s willingness to incorporate a more varied palette of performance-based flavors into this tour, including the live sampling of his own vocal loops on “Arc,” reflects this effectively.
Indeed, like Bruce Springsteen and Ray Davies before him, it does well for Vedder to construct a kind of context like this for himself on stage. He benefits from having a bit of structure to work within, and the audience in turn is kept that much more focused. There is still room though for him to ramble aimlessly into mildly charming personal anecdotes between songs and even work in canned political statements (cue the giant Obama ’08 banner behind the set).
Still though, Vedder’s charisma is obvious and his own knowledge of this is perhaps even more so. He knows how to finish an encore, linger near the edge of the stage and milk the audience into screaming for one more song.
But he’s also not the kind of artist whose protest songs or political opinions are going to set the world afire with original thoughts. At the same time though, it is unfair to simply brand him the thick man’s thinking man. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and that’s exactly where Vedder is at his best. With or without his bandmates on stage to back him up, you don’t get to be one of the biggest rock stars in the world by doing it any other way.