CHICAGO — The sudden roar of the crowd is so explosive that the walls of the old Allstate Arena seem to shake as hometown hero Eddie Vedder walks on stage with the rest of Pearl Jam.
As he heads to the microphone, the 35-year-old singer--who spent much of his childhood in nearby Evanston, Ill.--stops to tack a sheet of paper on a piece of stage equipment so that the audience can see lettering, which reads, "Let Ralph Debate."
Except for this timely campaign endorsement, the scene is reminiscent of the near hysteria that began building around Vedder and Pearl Jam a decade ago. Even this night's opening song, "Release," is from the rock quintet's debut album.
The fact that the energy level is still so high is remarkable for a band that will officially mark its 10th anniversary with a concert Sunday at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.
Album sales may have fallen off for Pearl Jam over the years, but its connection with a sizable, hard-core audience is still strong enough to make it an arena-level attraction. And the band's confidence and passion onstage, as evidenced by this Chicago show, both appear to be at high points.
Hundreds of fans from Southern California are expected to go to Las Vegas for the anniversary show, which is followed by a series of Southland appearances starting Tuesday at the Greek Theatre.
Rather than be lulled into complacency by their early success, Pearl Jam has become an increasingly soulful unit over the last 10 years, and their material has gained character and depth--especially in an extraordinary series of albums stretching from 1994's "Vitalogy" to 1998's "Yield."
It also helps on this tour that the group members themselves, after years of uncertainty and struggle, are having such a good time.
At one point during the encore, Vedder jumps down from the stage so that he can mingle with fans in the front rows. He even passes his wine bottle to the crowd and lets them sip from it.
"I'm enjoying myself now as much as I ever have, which is a great thing to be able to say after all this time," guitarist and band co-founder Stone Gossard said earlier in the day in his hotel room. "We all realize after all we've gone through just how special it is to be in the band. That's something that strikes me every night when we go on stage."
To mark Pearl Jam's 10th anniversary, Calendar Weekend asked each member of the group to reflect on some key moments in the band's history--including the Ticketmaster controversy and the tragedy in June when nine fans were accidentally trampled to death during a Pearl Jam set at a festival in Denmark.
Pearl Jam grew out of the ashes of Mother Love Bone, a Seattle band whose future was shattered when singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in March 1990, just months before the band's first album was released by PolyGram.
In putting together a new band that fall, guitarist Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament approached drummer Jack Irons, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he declined to join. He did, however, recommend a singer living in San Diego named Eddie Vedder.
Following up, Gossard and Ament sent Vedder an instrumental demo tape of some songs they had been working on. Vedder wrote some lyrics to the songs and added his vocals to the tracks.
Ament and Gossard were so excited by the tape Vedder sent back that they urged him to fly to Seattle, where they went into a rehearsal studio with him and the other original member, guitarist Mike McCready.
"It was the music that excited me, but also the commitment of the musicians," Vedder recalls of those early rehearsals. "This was the first time I had worked with musicians who were this talented and this driven. The music also sounded like something you hadn't heard before--something that was our own."
The band played its first public performance on Oct. 22--which is the anniversary marked by the Las Vegas show--and they released their first album, "Ten," late the following year.
The collection's phenomenal success--more than 10 million sales in the U.S.--helped spark a revolution in rock by opening a commercial door for a brigade of Seattle bands, including Nirvana and Soundgarden, that were lumped under the grunge label.
By expressing youthful uncertainties and doubts in ways both fearless and honest, grunge bands were a striking alternative to the calculation and pandering of the glam-rock and metal acts that were dominating the charts at the time.