Four songs into Pearl Jam's Wednesday night performance at the Gibson Amphitheatre, Eddie Vedder shifted his weight from one foot to the other, as if to maintain his balance atop something moving fast. Lead guitarist Mike McCready leaned back hard; Stone Gossard, on rhythm, hunched forward. Bassist Jeff Ament kept his head down as if holding on to an invisible mooring line. Matt Cameron cast himself as the storm's eye -- back straight, face calm as he beat out a spray of drum notes.
After nearly two decades and hundreds of shows, the most resilient group in alternative rock has become something simple at its core: a surf band.
It's not so much that Vedder can't resist aquatic metaphors, though the lifelong beach bum acknowledged that predilection Wednesday, quipping, "There are a lot of ocean references [tonight] because we're close to the shore, and it's healing." Nor is Pearl Jam's sound anything like the treble-heavy instrumentals of Dick Dale or the Surfaris.
Pearl Jam makes surf music in the philosophical sense. Its sets build in arcs. Some songs peak quickly and crash, while others take shape gradually. To negotiate their tricky changes, each player employs serious muscle control. If he stops to pose, he'll topple.
Wednesday the band started off fast and clean, tapping into the punchy spirit of its new album, "Backspacer," the band's first chart-topping album in more than a decade. (Vedder announced that he and his mates didn't care about the win yet admitted that it would be sweet to tell their children that "Daddy's No. 1.") It seemed like this would be a punk show, with the rhythm section beating out a punishing rat-a-tat.
The more metal-flavored "Force of Nature" and the hymn-like "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" broadened the show's tone, allowing McCready to stretch out on a solo and the crowd to itch its singalong scratch. Finally, "Amongst the Waves," a pretty love song that proved more complex live than it seems on "Backspacer," provided the space Pearl Jam needed to become (to borrow a term coined by fellow alt-rock titans Jane's Addiction) ocean-sized.
The Gibson helped Pearl Jam get bigger. The sound was excellent, crisp and crackling with detail, and the medium capacity of just over 6,000 let fans and band connect without being cramped.
That last goal -- connection -- relates to the way Pearl Jam is not a surf band. While surfing is a solo activity, allowing for the contemplative, grace-filled moments Vedder often describes in his lyrics, Pearl Jam is essentially a team. Vedder, though charismatic, never hams it up, preferring even at 44 to throw himself around like a kid at a club; he does not preen like a sex symbol or a demigod.
In concert, he places himself among his mates, who attend mostly to each other, working to smoothly make every transition.
This straightforward attitude feeds the communal feeling at Pearl Jam shows. The band's audience is supremely pleasurable to join; it's enthusiastic without being overly aggressive, all smiles and raised arms.
Wednesday, the fans were ever so slightly more subdued than usual, perhaps because this was the first of four shows at the theater (the band was due to play Thursday before traveling to Texas to headline the Austin City Limits festival on Sunday, and then return to the Gibson on Tuesday and Wednesday.)
Rare older material, like "Tremor Christ" and the amiably sleazy "Rats," earned the loudest cheers, though the new material was well received.
A few guests aided the band's effort. Ben Harper, whose brawny Relentless7 opened the show, added some sting to "Red Mosquito." A string section sweetened the sound on two new ballads, "Just Breathe" and "The End," and keyboardist Kenneth "Boom" Gaspar added texture and detail on several songs.
The most charming guest of all, though, was the young man Vedder pulled up onstage during the second encore. He shouted out a verse with the singer, who then positioned him in front of McCready. As the guitarist took a solo, the boy shook like a piece of flotsam being tossed about. He was overwhelmed, but he rode the wave nonetheless.
Where: Gibson Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City
When: 7:15 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
Contact: (818) 622-4440 or www.ticketmaster.com