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ROCK OF AGES : POP MUSIC REVIEW

It's a lot to live up to

But Eddie Vedder pulls it off. As he begins his first solo tour, he comes across as thoughtful and sociable.

April 04, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Beginning his first-ever solo tour Wednesday, Eddie Vedder gave a lesson in how to hush a screaming crowd. Not literally: The 1,800 or so Pearl Jam fans who'd snapped up the night's tickets spent little time being quiet, instead granting their band's beloved singer endless ovations, singing along (only when asked) and shouting requests.

Within this charged atmosphere, Vedder, perhaps rock's most introspective lead singer, created a zone of shared reflection that made all the praiseful fuss seem irrelevant. He could have been in his own basement, alone or with some close friends. The stage set at the performing arts center here had the faux-casual design common to "unplugged" shows -- a funky reel-to-reel player sat near the chair where Vedder sat for most of the night, and a Corona box served as an ersatz stool. But Vedder's thoughtful, sociable performance made the intimacy real.

Immersed in his songs, Vedder half-closed his eyes and let the music take its course. In Pearl Jam, he's expert at playing the surfer, finding one wave within the many that that big ensemble generates and riding it to glory. On this tour, which comes to the Wiltern in Los Angeles April 12-13, he has to be more delicate.

Exploring his songbook of originals and favorite cover versions, Vedder's big baritone found smaller streams to follow, letting his circuitous grooves and melodies undulate toward their conclusions. Some songs, like the recent "Guaranteed," were hymn-like and lovely. Others hit harder, showing the influence of the Who and hard-core punk.

While his vocals were often tender, Vedder's guitar playing pointed to his love of noisy rock. He doesn't often get to show off his chops alongside flashy Pearl Jam axemen Mike McCready and Stone Gossard. He took the opportunity here, playing fast and clean even on the tiny electric ukulele he laughingly called "better than a friend, because it doesn't talk back."

Such asides emerged only after Vedder calmed his first-night nerves; it took him five songs to even pause and address the audience. Pulling aside his long-sleeve flannel to reveal a battered Butthole Surfers T-shirt, he announced it as a talisman: It was the same one he'd worn during Pearl Jam's first show.

After this ritual moment, Vedder relaxed, steering the evening toward the "different kind of conversation" he wanted it to be. He read from a newspaper, commenting on issues ranging from the proposed removal of a local statue to the current crisis in Tibet. He told a mildly dirty joke and then worried that it might turn up on YouTube.

"Bruce Springsteen would never say something like that," he moaned. "That's why he's the Boss and I'm just the employee."

Vedder's set list was carefully organized, with Pearl Jam favorites such as "I Am Mine" leading into selections from his soundtrack for "Into the Wild," some sweet songs for ukulele, a long block of covers, and a bit more Pearl Jam.

Unlike his elders Springsteen and Ray Davies, who staged breakthrough solo tours a decade ago, Vedder didn't resort to a specific narrative or a highly crafted persona. He aimed for an arguably more daring goal: to present himself as himself, unconstructed, turning inward before reaching out to the audience.

He let himself make mistakes too. Flubbing the first chords of the intricate "No Ceiling," Vedder first muttered his discontent, then joked, "If I'm going to play this properly -- it's a very difficult song -- I need complete and utter silence." Playing electric ukulele on "Brokenhearted," he stopped himself, saying, "Let me just check the second chord on this song." Integrating such small missteps into the night's story, Vedder added to the sense of emotional openness.

That's where Vedder's charisma lives -- in the moment when feeling finds its way forward, growing more articulate as it is shared. His songs have a different quality than the usual pop revelations. They show instead of telling, putting listeners inside the consciousness of his characters. The covers Vedder performed, including James Taylor's "Millworker," Springsteen's "Growin' Up," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" by the Beatles and "Trouble" by Cat Stevens, served to highlight the uniqueness of his own talent.

Vedder doesn't want to stand apart from the lineage of big, singalong pop; his zealous take on Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" further asserted that connection. This tour is a way for him to consider what new paths he's forged alongside the ones he follows. His ruminative mood may change as he travels through California this month, but he's sure to only refine what he's learning -- and sharing -- about his place in the world.

When Vedder considers his legacy, he'd surely be happy to include Liam Finn among his proteges. The son of singer-songwriter (and Ed's pal) Neil Finn, this shaggy 24-year-old New Zealander is making an impression with his fiery, slightly psychedelic solo debut "I'll Be Lightning." Performing an opening set in collaboration with Australian singer-songwriter Eliza Jane Barnes, Finn moved between guitar and drums, and was best at his loudest and most unbound. He has a knack for poppy songcraft, but spending this tour with Vedder might turn Finn a little wilder, and that would be a fine development.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

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