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Pearl Jam at 25: Back on the road, and bound for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Pearl Jam released their first album, Ten, in 1991. Twenty-five years later, they don’t crowd-dive, but they haven’t lost their energy.

Photo by Danny Clinch

Pearl Jam released their first album, Ten, in 1991. Twenty-five years later, they don’t crowd-dive, but they haven’t lost their energy.

It's not every year that an artist or band is voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year of eligibility. In the past decade, it has happened only seven times: Green Day, Nirvana, Public Enemy, Guns N' Roses, Run-DMC, Madonna and R.E.M.

This December, Pearl Jam will make it eight.

Twenty-five years after their landmark album Ten, Pearl Jam is gearing up for one of their busiest years in quite some time, launching a high-profile tour that includes headlining slots at Bonnaroo and New Orleans Jazz Fest, and a nearly sold-out concert Monday at Amalie Arena, their first Tampa show in a decade. It's not exactly a campaign for enshrinement, but staying so visible in 2016 won't hurt their case. When Pearl Jam debuts on voters' ballots this fall, no name will stand out more. It's a slam dunk.

But why?

It's an inexact science, defining what makes a band worthy of the hall. Sales and popularity matter, but only so much; Bon Jovi, Journey and Janet Jackson are all on the outside looking in. But it's also not just about coolness and influence, either — the Smiths, the Replacements and Kraftwerk also haven't gained much traction. To get in, you need not just a resume, but a cover letter — a narrative that contextualizes your place in music history and attempts to explain how you moved and shaped it.

Pearl Jam have long been considered a grunge band, but they're really traditional rock populists at heart. Their biggest mainstream hit is a straightforward cover of the '60s teen lament Last Kiss. Singer Eddie Vedder has personally delivered Rock Hall induction speeches for the Doors, Neil Young, R.E.M. and the Ramones; he has shared stages with Tom Petty, Brian Wilson and the Rolling Stones. His favorite band is the Who. He isn't just an ideal candidate for Rock Hall enshrinement; he might just be the hall's target demographic.

None of this was entirely obvious in 1991, when Pearl Jam became poster boys for the Seattle grunge movement, appearing on the cover of Time and in the Cameron Crowe film Singles. But even then, they were bridging the counterculture and mainstream in ways weirdo peers like Nirvana and Jane's Addiction never did. They were — no judgment — a bunch of jocks, baseball and basketball fans whose live concerts were athletic, death-defying affairs. Ten wasn't an album for mopers; it was an album for carnivores, an album that made you ache the next day.

As with all the greats, they prickled at becoming pigeonholed, musically or otherwise. Followup albums Vs. and Vitalogy maintained Ten's intensity on louder, faster tracks like Rearviewmirror and Spin the Black Circle, but wrung warmth and humanity out of songs like Daughter and Better Man. Pearl Jam became more politically active, going to court (and Congress) to fight Ticketmaster over oppressive ticket fees. They recorded an album with Neil Young. Grunge had barely broken and collapsed, and already Pearl Jam was thinking about their career's grander arc.

Musically, Pearl Jam's case for immortality basically boils down to five albums in eight years, from Ten to 1998's Yield — the period of their greatest commercial success. But in some ways, what they've done since the new millennium is just as important to their legacy. In 2000, they began releasing official bootlegs of almost every live concert, a groundbreaking experiment designed to give fans a closer connection to their music. Their sonic palette has remained broad, but songs like World Wide Suicide (2006), The Fixer (2009), Olé (2011) and Mind Your Manners (2013) retain a lot of that carnal Ten rage.

But what matters more than Pearl Jam's longevity is their intensity. Vedder no longer scales the scaffolding of his stages to dive into the crowd, but he doesn't need to. The band's exhilarating live shows are furious, hourslong, career-spanning affairs, splattered with all the huge hits, sing-along covers and surprising album cuts, and never, ever performed the same way twice. Only one other group can make such a claim, and that's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Talk about a heck of a shortlist.

Add it all up, and it's hard to make a case against Pearl Jam entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They might be the last band of their kind, a pre-Internet behemoth whose music and videos shaped pop culture, who innovated in turbulent times and who consistently stuck to their artistic values. For a band that has long seemed conscious of its own legacy, you could do a lot worse, even if the Hall of Fame voters never call.

But they will. This fall. Just watch.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

>>If you go

Pearl Jam

The group performs at 8 p.m. Monday at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $67.25. (813) 301-2500 or amaliearena.com.

Pearl Jam at 25: Back on the road, and bound for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 04/07/16 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2016 12:10pm]
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