Walking the Long Road
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Walking the Long Road

Photo by Danny Clinch.

Pearl Jam returns to Toronto tonight for the first time since 2006, and to say it’s a hot ticket would be severely understating things: the show was sold out as soon as it went on sale, and this morning StubHub is fetching as much as $280 for lawn tickets. Toronto loves its Pearl Jam—and the feeling, one suspects, is mutual. The band used the city as base camp for a third of its 2005 trek across Canada and launched its 2006 world tour with back-to-back nights at Air Canada Centre. Eddie Vedder, meanwhile, played a pair of white-hot solo shows at Massey Hall last summer. It’s no surprise, then, that Pearl Jam picked Toronto as one of its few 2009 destinations.
Tonight’s show, part of a mini-tour that’s a sort of precursor to North American swings this fall and next year, is ostensibly in support of the band’s forthcoming album, Backspacer, that’s due out September 22. Really, though, Pearl Jam hasn’t needed an excuse to tour in ages; indeed, since the band laid down its arms and surrendered to Ticketmaster in the late ’90s, Pearl Jam has grown into something of a social phenomenon thanks largely to its legions of rabidly devoted fans, many of whom will follow the band from one city to the next. Comparisons between Pearl Jam and the Grateful Dead are thus inevitable, if misguided: Pearl Jam at their commercial peak were far more popular than the Dead could’ve ever been. Yet the Pearl Jam culture—typified by fan club members occupying most of the prime seats, setlists that often vary wildly from one night to the next, and the band’s famous “official bootlegs”—makes them as close to a latter day Dead as we’re ever likely to see.
In that sense Pearl Jam is utterly unique, for while the band’s record sales have dropped since their mid-’90s heyday, they’re still as big a concert draw as ever. Hardcore Pearl Jam fans might’ve turned them into cult heroes, yet the enduring popularity of Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy still attracts casual fans in droves. (It’s worth mentioning that Pearl Jam is currently unsigned, which makes them arguably the world’s biggest indie band; they brokered a series of deals to get Backspacer distributed.) Ultimately, though, neither group would keep on coming if Pearl Jam weren’t a phenomenal live act. The current tour is only a handful of dates old, yet the band has hit the ground running: at the tour opener in Calgary, they were in full swing by the opening number (“Why Go”). The new songs stand up well to the band’s established hits; in particular, “Got Some,” which the band debuted on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien and which sounds like the mutant offspring of Pearl Jam’s best hard rockers (think “Hail, Hail” meets “Brain of J.” meets “Severed Hand”), is already a live show-stopper.
It’s impossible to predict what tonight’s concert has in store, a fact that in and of itself keeps many Pearl Jam fans keep coming back for more. To them, seeing Pearl Jam is less about concert-going and more about a deep, enduring connection with their favourite band. “They get the feeling this means something,” Eddie Vedder said in a recent Guardian interview, and he’s exactly right. And as long as Vedder and his bandmates continue holding up their end of the bargain, Pearl Jam’s concerts will continue to be special even with the band’s commercial peak more than a decade in the rear-view mirror.